The Pointlessness of Sanctioning Drama

By Benjamin Massey · January 7th, 2017 · No comments

Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven

Calling the United Soccer League a “second division,” as the US Soccer Federation announced that they provisionally would[1], is only fair. It is also fair for the USSF to maintain the NASL’s second-division status now that it looks like they’ll probably be able to keep going for 2017. On the field, the NASL and USL seem relatively even: the NASL had an advantage over USL teams in last year’s US Open Cup but in 2015 the USL pulled off a 7-0 whitewash. The best-supported USL teams, Cincinnati and Sacramento, outdrew the best-supported team remaining in the NASL, Indy. USL still has more full-on-minor-league teams with 1,000-odd attendances even if you don’t count the MLS reserve squads, but added two good ones from NASL in Tampa and Ottawa.

Neither league meets all the USSF criteria for a second division; thus the “provisional” in their announcement. The USL has its weak-sister clubs, many of which allegedly only pay staff part-time and have no appetite for continent-wide travel. Indeed, this was a selling point for the Ottawa Fury jumping to the USL, and the main barrier to FC Edmonton ever doing the same. The NASL, of course, is a bit of a basket case. But they would have been far more of a basket case had the USSF denied them division-2 status: according to Dave Martinez at Empire of Soccer the reported sale of the New York Cosmos to Rocco Commisso hinged on the NASL being a formal second division[2]. Even the remaining seven teams would have had their exit fee discounted by at least 95% as a third division[3]. There would have been no stranger twist in this unpredictable story than the NASL surviving that.

In short, if the USSF wanted to be fairest to both leagues and ensure the strongest professional soccer environment possible, this is pretty much the obvious decision. The only alternatives would have been to flick a middle finger in USL’s face on poorly-rationalized historic grounds, give up the NASL as a going concern, or to do what they did in 2010 and force both leagues to play a combined second-division schedule, a “compromise” no party expressed even off-the-record interest in. The USL is excited, with enthusiastic press releases and a slightly-ironic “We Are UniteD2” campaign going league-wide. The NASL is less excited with what after all is for them the status quo, but they’re alive. (For now.)

So there are only two questions left. The first: what took the USSF so long? This sanctioning drama started in November and it’s obvious they weren’t planning on putting any horses out of their misery if they could help it. Were they waiting to make sure the NASL could reach the arbitrary number of eight teams (they played with seven in the spring of 2013)? Were they hoping one league would go “surprise, all our teams are suddenly owned by Russian oligarchs and we’re meeting all your standards tomorrow?” Were they just waffling uselessly until the potential Cosmos sale forced them to do something/anything? (Brooks Peck at Howler might endorse that theory[4].) They’re still promising details of what “provisional” means “in the coming weeks.” Whatever the explanation, it’s now of academic interest to the fan until the end of this season when we get to do the whole thing again.

The second question: why does it matter? Okay, the second paragraph of this very article said why, but on a more fundamental level why does it matter? Stop me if this is breaking news but, in Canada and the United States, there’s no such thing as a “soccer pyramid.” There is no promotion or relegation based on squad ability, or organizational quality, or anything beyond a team’s willingness to pay an entry fee and salaries. There have been div-2 NASL teams better than div-1 MLS teams, and div-3 USL teams better than div-2 NASL teams, and I bet there are USL PDL or NPSL teams that could give the Tulsa Roughnecks a run for their money. The business viability of the NASL depended on what number came after the word “division” in their Wikipedia article, and the USL obviously thought it was very important, but it has no inherent meaning. It’s all fake! It’s like basing your business on whether Chris Jericho won on Raw last week! None of it has anything to do with anything! The Orange County Blues are not suddenly a stronger franchise! If the decision had gone the other way, the Indy Eleven would not suddenly be a weaker one! It’s fiction! It’s not even a useful fiction! It’s just an arbitrary number decided by bureaucrats, the most useless concept with the very highest importance.

It’s even worse for us up in Canada. If the NASL had become a third division and shut down as a result we almost certainly would have lost FC Edmonton. 20% of our professional soccer scene up in smoke because Americans quibbled over digits. We would have suffered a serious blow for what amounts to no reason at all.

Eight years ago you could say that the American soccer pyramid, while fake, was nearly rational. There was Major League Soccer on the top, unquestionably comprising almost all of the best-supported and best-financed soccer clubs in the land. Then there was the USL First Division, which was the national second division, then the USL Second Division, which was the third. As the name implies the USL divisions were under the same umbrella, and while there still wasn’t promotion or relegation teams would move up or down depending on their finance and ambition. It wasn’t a working system but it was a coherent one.

Any thin veneer of logic this “pyramid” ever had vanished when the USL-NASL split was finalized in 2011. The USL never pretended to be anything but a second division in temporary exile, with much talk of “the top level of soccer below MLS.” The NASL long wanted to be a first division and justified this on the grounds we’ve just discussed: that the groupings were entirely arbitrary so why shouldn’t a given league be at a given level if it wanted to be? The USSF set increasing standards for a third, a second, and a first division with strict requirements for finance and stadium, then showered waivers every year like a ticker-tape parade because said strict requirements had only a loose relationship with reality. The ostensible rationale was to ensure stability at the sub-MLS level, but this winter’s drama is only the most vivid proof of how that goal has failed.

What is the point of this crap? How does it help the American soccer world, ignoring for the moment the Canadian one? The only thing the current American divisional structure does is encourage investors to act like it matters, and its influence seems entirely malign.

There’s only one solution to this sanctioning question. It’s not USL and NASL sorting out their differences, because that won’t happen and even if it did some second-division team would miss payroll or some third-division team would get a new owner and it would all be irrelevant the next season anyway. The real answer is to say “what the hell are we doing?” and abolish the whole distinction. Set standards for a professional league and let the competitors deal with each other as they will. The free market will decide. MLS is not the top level in the United States because it says “major league” in the name, it’s the top level because it has the best players and the highest calibre of marketing. If the NASL equals them it will not be because a federation said so, but because they invested the cash and did the work.

Let the teams decide which divisions are best, not centralized soccer overlords. Until promotion and relegation come to Canada and the United States, and let us pray every day that it does, that is the only arrangement that makes the slightest amount of sense.

(notes and comments…)

Edmonton, Last Survivor and First Rebirth?

By Benjamin Massey · December 1st, 2016 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

After six seasons, the North American Soccer League is looking desperate. Ottawa and Tampa Bay have joined USL, Major League Soccer’s reserve league[1]. Fort Lauderdale seems hopelessly doomed[2] and Oklahoma City is all-but-officially dead[3]. And now the most shocking news, that the New York Cosmos, the New York Cosmos, have started missing payroll[4] and may be leaving the NASL[5]; the front office is brazenly noncommittal[6]. What’s certain is that the NASL and USL are meeting, with the United States Soccer Federation in attendance, to try and save something[7]. Even if the NASL manages to stay afloat the USSF may declare it inferior to USL by fiat. The omens for the survival of an independent professional division are extremely bad.

The NASL still has strong teams, the expansion San Francisco Deltas are set to join in 2017, and the usual rumours swirl of game-changing new investment. This might no longer suffice against a MLS-USL axis that has never stopped praying for what all the reports imply: the NASL coming to pieces as the survivors beg for shelter until Don Garber and Alec Papadakis’s big umbrella. But even if today is the NASL’s last they got six years of independent, lovable soccer. That was probably four more than the average punter would have guessed at the beginning.

The clubs that broke from the USL First Division to form the NASL in 2010 included two strong organizations bolting for MLS almost immediately (Vancouver, Montreal), four teams perennially on the verge of collapse (Minnesota, Atlanta, Puerto Rico, Miami), two teams that actually folded before the league played its first game (St. Louis, Baltimore), another wanting for committed ownership (Carolina), and finally FC Tampa Bay, which just happened to be located in USL’s hometown and would later face a competitor, VSI Tampa Bay, in the rebranded USL Pro.

Sure, the NASL had the Cosmos, but we forget how incredibly fly-by-night they once were. Grandiose announcements, huge renderings of new stadiums, merchandising galore, Éric Cantona-helmed friendlies against Manchester United[8], promises of world-class this and EPL-level that… and an underfinanced and ultimately bankrupt youth academy[9], constant changes among important personnel, with no hint this could be a serious soccer organization until, under new ownership, they hit the field in fall 2013 and kicked everybody’s ass.

As for the other early expansion team, FC Edmonton, nobody thought they had a prayer. I didn’t. And yet as the league founders the Eddies have been its most determined defender. Who could have guessed that Ottawa and Tampa would defect, New York would throw down its arms, Minnesota would long have fled for higher ground, and Tom Fath would hold the last ditch? That FC Edmonton, playing in its unsuitable community stadium with an owner who is openly not a soccer guy and a dodgy on-field record, would outlive its league? They’re hiring sales people, right now! A new fan shop seems set to open! If the NASL goes down it won’t be because Edmonton lost faith: the Eddies die hard.

Poor Edmonton. Their loyalty is unlikely to be rewarded. The NASL’s surviving American clubs will wince at replacing the Cosmos with MLS reserve teams but, barring intransigence to a self-destructive degree, will survive. USL would be mad, absolutely mad, to put roadblocks before organizations of Jacksonville and Indy’s quality. Even Miami and Puerto Rico look good compared to some, and are in markets where USL has an historic interest.

USL admitted an Edmonton team once, the Aviators in 2004. That organization couldn’t hold a candle to FC Edmonton’s and went about as wrong as an expansion team can go. At the time there were independent first teams in Calgary, Minnesota, Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. All are now gone, or reduced to reserve status and eager to pinch pennies. Today’s USL is a crescent, from the Cascadian reserve teams, through good numbers in California and south of the Mason-Dixon, back up to their traditional powerhouses on the eastern seaboard. You could hardly customize a 31-team geography where Edmonton would look more out-of-place. Ottawa can take the bus to a dozen away games; Edmonton would have no hope of a regional rival and no bus trips from anyone but the Whitecaps and Sounders Reserves.

Why would USL want Edmonton? Their attendance and sponsorship power hardly make them “must-haves.” Their travel problems are legendary even by the higher standard of the NASL. Would they be the price for a USL-NASL merger; would Indy go to the wall to save Edmonton? Nice as it is to imagine that would be taking loyalty, literally, a very great distance. Besides, if Tom Fath’s considerable investment in the NASL evaporates and he faces the reduced crowds of reserve soccer, will he even want to go on? Five long weeks ago, when from the outside the NASL looked acceptably stable, Tom Fath told Steven Sandor there was “zero chance” of Edmonton joining USL[10].

Ah, my Canadian friend, you’re thinking of another option. Well, yes, FC Edmonton has been asked about joining the potential Canadian Premier League. They have been asked many times by many people, to the point that they are reportedly exasperated by the very question. Outsiders occasionally assume Edmonton will join because “well NASL it’s natural,” but while they haven’t been loud about it there’s no doubt FC Edmonton isn’t interested[11].

But what if the NASL folds, and USL is uninterested or impractical? Would CanPL be better than nothing? Of course right now CanPL more-or-less is nothing: no teams, no schedule, no players, one employee. But surely even faint hope is better than certain extinction.

That’s what you or I would say, but it’s not our money. The Faths poured time and treasure into the NASL with limited returns beyond a warm feeling in their bellies. Will they have the heart to try again, back awfully close to square one?

It would be glorious if they did. If you are an Albertan, you spend money on the Eddies, and you enjoy the almost-intimate access which at this level of professional soccer comes so easily for even the most ordinary fan, I hope you agree and will make it known. The Eddies are a rare, precious thing and deserve to live forever, in this league or another.

If the Faths do give up, though, they will leave deserving of our gratitude and respect. (This makes them unique among Edmonton professional soccer magnates.) They will also leave the City of Champions open for another CanPL team to take the reins in good conscience. Edmonton may yet be represented in the greatest Canadian soccer experiment of our generation, as it certainly deserves to be. And so, dementedly, the fall of the NASL could pay off for us.

For many, even when compared to a Canadian Premier League the NASL is a good thing. It has liberty. Its clubs, though part of an American-dominated whole, are not the centrally-run branch plants of MLS franchises. If the CanPL existed and played games, it would be easy to choose… but it didn’t, and the NASL did. You wouldn’t be human if this didn’t affect your calculations, if you preferred solid reality to beautiful dreams. Could Edmonton, for example, be blamed for staying loyal to an NASL that let them serve Canadian soccer with total freedom, as surely as they could in the CanPL?

If you have room in your Canadian heart for more than MLS’s American drama, if you cheer for Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Montreal Impact because that’s your hometown team but you know the country could and should have better, then there is a sweetness to this bitter fruit. The last continental institutional loyalty that could be defended, the last sublimation of Canadian identity maybe justified on higher grounds, is dying. We are being freed from the indignity of willing national submission. If the NASL ends then it will be Garber’s way or the highway, and that makes the road to independence look very clear.

(notes and comments…)

Rowdies Can Rongen

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

Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

Today, Thomas Rongen lost the NASL sack race. 261 days after being named Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach on December 3[1], the veteran has been fired along with general manager Farrukh Quraishi[2].

Whenever you fire your coach eighteen games into his first season while tied for third in the NASL combined standings you’re hitting the panic button. Was I Rowdies owner Bill Edwards I’d have given Rongen more time. Well, I tell a half-truth; was I Edwards I wouldn’t have hired Rongen at all. When I wrote my 10,000-word NASL preview in March I called Rongen, as politely as I could, “the sort of coach who always seems to get a new job somewhere.”[3] I’m sure he will, too. Rongen is affable, fun on social media, and wears a bowtie. He is a “character” with support in the soccer community and such people are never out of work indefinitely, though the litany of disappointment since the 1999 MLS Cup is now a bit longer.

It’s not like Rongen and Quraishi were serene themselves. The two ex-bosses tore down virtually the entire Rowdies roster over the 2014-15 offseason; they must take credit for the new team’s achievements and blame for its failures. Recently they made headlines by signing two high-profile busts, Freddy Adu and Omar Salgado. Adu, who is frequently injured, has played a total of fifteen minutes in one game. Salgado, who is even more frequently injured than that, spent some time waiting for paperwork, played twelve minutes in one game, and hasn’t been seen since. They joined a team of career underachievers like Corey Hertzog, Gale Agbossoumonde, Maicon Santos, and Rich Balchan, with only Hertzog inherited from 2014. There’s little material to suggest a championship run, and maybe a hot start raised expectations beyond reason. If so that would be cruel: the luck that made Rongen look good in the spring turned out to be really bad.

Tampa Bay had a fine spring season. They finished in second place, only a point behind New York (who nobody’s going to get) and were second in goal difference as well. If not for the Cosmos beating the Rowdies 2-0 in New York on April 18, Tampa Bay would already have booked a playoff spot thanks to the NASL’s split-season format. There’s no denying that firing the leadership of a team which came so close so quickly looks odd.

NASL TSRs and PDOs through August 21
Spring 2015 Fall 2015 Total 2015
Team TSR PDO TSR PDO TSR PDO
ATL 0.448 92.35 0.385 114.52 0.419 103.74
CAR 0.427 117.20 0.419 98.37 0.423 107.93
EDM 0.478 94.20 0.556 110.74 0.511 100.68
FTL 0.504 102.69 0.562 91.55 0.527 98.97
IND 0.535 103.77 0.558 90.68 0.546 97.62
JAX 0.503 80.00 0.509 103.57 0.506 102.04
MIN 0.528 99.74 0.503 106.60 0.518 102.04
NY 0.557 107.35 0.548 98.18 0.553 103.65
OTT 0.528 91.39 0.528 107.01 0.528 100.67
SA 0.500 94.28 0.422 95.00 0.469 94.54
TB 0.492 111.00 0.500 85.71 0.495 99.26

But the spring season is only ten games. Drawing conclusions from ten games’ worth of results is stupid. To the right are the Total Shots Ratio (TSR) and PDO of each team in the NASL so far this season. Fully explaining TSR and PDO is beyond the scope of this article but think of them as statistical smell tests. PDO is simply a team’s shooting percentage plus its save percentage, and TSR the proportion of total shots in a game taken by the team in question. So a team that’s generating more chances than its opposition will tend to have a higher TSR, and a team which is converting on a lot of its shots or getting lights-out goalkeeping a high PDO. This is important because history suggests that a team with an outrageous PDO, either high or low, is deceiving you: over the long haul a team’s PDO approaches 100.00, and if the PDO is way out from that said team is probably either better or worse than the standings show.

NASL statistics aren’t perfectly accurate, but people who minded their TSRs and PDOs would have guessed that the Cosmos would be killing it this year while the Scorpions and Railhawks slumped, and that FC Edmonton wasn’t nearly as good as their 2014 autumn. The point isn’t that comparing TSRs and PDOs allows you to glean soccer’s well-hidden secrets, but that it allows you to guess broadly who’s lucky and who isn’t.

Tampa Bay’s TSR is solidly middle of the road. In the spring they surged with the second-best PDO in the league and the best among anybody who should seriously be considering playoff spots. In the fall their luck’s run out and their spot in the standings has fallen with it. The result is that their current position is about right, or maybe a little flattering. They’re average. They have average tattooed all over their foreheads. That certainly isn’t enough to blow away your coach after eighteen games, but it’s not worth making a real fuss to defend the guy either.

Last year’s Rowdies, much-maligned with a long-time coach playing his kid in front of a crowd demanding a lot more, were pretty average as well until they were decimated by the new management. 2014 Tampa Bay ended the year with a perfectly respectable TSR of 0.509. Where they fell apart was in PDO: 85.85 was last place in the league by a lot. A 22.09% shooting percentage was bad, but their save percentage of 63.77% was the real killer, and so the Rowdies finished well out of the playoff running.

Break down Tampa Bay’s spring PDO and you’ll see how their save percentage improved and nearly brought them glory: 84.21%, first in the NASL by a long way. Quelle différence, but not a sustainable number. An anti-stats type might grumble that Rongen should get credit for finding talent in goal, but the problem is that Tampa Bay’s keepers have been Matt Pickens, one of the few returning 2014 Rowdies, and veteran Kamil Čontofalský, who despite obviously being a good player had an unlucky save percentage last year in Fort Lauderdale. Rongen did not find brilliant new talent capable of posting high percentages: two keepers coming off low percentages, one of whom Tampa already had, rebounded.

Moreover, the Rowdies are not a young team building for the future: as mentioned above, a lot of their players have been plucked from the busts of a higher level. Men like Adu, Hertzog, and Agbossoumonde will not develop into star players now that they’re in their mid-twenties with several professional seasons behind them. There’s been much talk of a “five-year plan” but, in Tampa Bay’s case, that didn’t mean developing home-grown talent this season at the cost of results. On the Rowdies roster Salgado, Darwin Espinal, Robert Hernández, and Jeff Michaud are under 22 years old, and only Michaud played his teenage years in Florida. Michaud and Hernández essentially never play, leaving Espinal as the only young-ish regular. Čontofalský is 37, Pickens is 33, and leading scorer Maicon Santos is 31. That’s a long way from a youth movement.

Again, there is nothing here to justify so large a change to the team so quickly. For Rongen and Quraishi’s firings to make sense on their own terms there has to be something else: maybe all those new players came at a high price their performances haven’t justified, maybe something went on behind the scenes, or maybe Bill Edwards is just sick of waiting and doesn’t see enough improvement on the horizon. So that’s my defense of Rongen and Quraishi. The other side is there’s no reason for Rowdies fans to stay up wishing they were still around, either.

(notes and comments…)

The Pro/Rel Fantasy

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2015 · No comments

North American Soccer League

North American Soccer League

As you probably know, North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson recently told The Telegraph‘s Bob Williams that he will “take action” on bringing promotion and relegation to North American soccer[1].

Obviously a serious fan will wish Peterson all the best, but talk is cheap and pro/rel chatter goes at a discount. The only thing in the soccer universe less likely than the NASL getting USL onboard for a promotion/relegation scheme is the NASL getting MLS onboard. Peterson talks about a partnership with the American National Premier Soccer League but even for the Yanks that’s hardly a national pyramid while Canadians and Puerto Ricans would be, as Steven Sandor pointed out, up the proverbial creek. Itself a long shot, such a setup might be better than nothing but, for Canadian fans, not much.

Obviously promotion and relegation would be terrific in North America, as it has been everywhere else in the world. The North American sports palate is not as coarse and unrefined as Don Garber would have you believe. Take it from me, who cheers for many a last-place team: if I could honestly urge my lads to win at the end of the season rather than lose for the sake of a draft pick I’d be overjoyed, even if relegation was the price of failure. Leagues with business models based off collecting franchise fees will be have to find another way but that’s a feature, not a bug. Likewise with anti-labour concepts like discovery lists, allocation orders, and SuperDrafts which a real pyramid would make untenable.

The discussion, however, is academic so long as professional team owners are more interested in prestige and soccer-like sports entertainment than building a system that might hurt individuals even if it’s a collective boon. Which is why you don’t see much pro/rel ranting on this website: clearly pro/rel can’t be beat, but equally clearly it would require a shift in the North American soccer landscape of such scale that any forecast is essentially a personal fantasy.

Hell with it, let’s fantasize. Tomorrow morning Don Garber, Bill Peterson, Victor Montagliani, Sunil Gulati, and USL president Jake Edwards walk into my apartment. “Ben,” they say, “we’ve read your blog, we really like it (especially the blasphemous Photoshops), and we have therefore appointed you generalissimo of North American soccer. Your mandate is to implement promotion and relegation in Canada and the United States. The catch is that you don’t really have any new money and if you stomp all over the owners they’ll launch a coup, establish an Emergency Government of National Security, and hang you from a lamppost. What’s your plan?”

Major League Soccer need not give up its primacy. With promotion and relegation giving any club a route to the top, a professional domestic division developing domestic players, and the roster rules of a North American pyramid with three soccer nations (Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico) as equal partners, most objections to our all-consuming top division disappear. Successful teams will thrive, the unsuccessful will fail, and if a Canadian team decides to focus entirely on foreign players, that team a couple divisions down nurturing local talent will have every chance to eat their lunch. Many MLS rules, like a salary cap and designated player slots, might remain in place all the way down the pyramid: what we’d lose would be favouritism between domestic players in different countries and the shady deals, weighted lotteries, and suspicious bursts of undocumented cash that make MLS such a joke.

The much-discussed Canadian second division is essential without promotion and relegation and would be essential with it. Hopefully the prospect of promotion would attract NASL loyalists FC Edmonton; in a pro/rel universe we couldn’t really hook them onto the American ladder forever. If not I guess we’re selling the nice china and pawning our guitars until we can buy the Faths out. As for the Puerto Ricans, the existing Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico is a good starting point for a third division. Their league structure is a hot mess right now, with traditional powerhouses Bayamón F.C. having to join the mainland NPSL, and as an ignorant outsider it seems unlikely that they’ll have a league at second division standard in the near future.

Amateur and youth levels, such as USL PDL, are left out. They don’t belong in the discussion of an open-age professional structure, even if some teams are plenty talented enough to compete at a third-division standard. Their role is an independent one, though doubtless some teams more interested in entertaining the community than developing college players will move over.

Canada United States Puerto Rico
Division 1 Major League Soccer
24 teams
Division 2 Canadian Premier League
8+ teams
North American Soccer League
10 teams
Division 3
Top reserve level
regional third divisions
(PLSQ, L1O, etc.)
United Soccer League
18 teams (plus reserves)
Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico
12 teams
Division 4+ local premier leagues National Premier Soccer League
65 teams
local soccer?

A thorny practical problem is how to determine who gets relegated. (This is where I’m glad I’m generalissimo.) Your standard three-up-three-down rule would be poorly received by MLS owners who’d paid huge expansion fees, and competitively unfair given the sometimes dramatic gaps in quality between different levels. Then there’s how to deal with three soccer nations under one roof.

I would put the three last-place MLS teams into an annual playoff with the top two NASL teams and the Canadian champion and have them play off, home and away. The last-place MLS team and the three second-division teams play one round. The winners face the second-last and third-last MLS teams. The winners of that play next season in MLS; the losers get a last chance third-place game. The big-money MLS teams would have every chance to keep their place, and if they took the drop in spite of everything it would be their own damned fault. If the NASL/Canadian teams are completely uncompetitive they’ll get wiped out in the playoff and, hopefully, come back stronger next year. It’s a conservative format which favours the existing powerhouses, but that’s okay if it gives everyone an honest chance.

This would happen without prejudice to nationality. If a Canadian league team wins promotion and it’s all American teams in the relegation pot, there’s one more Canadian team in MLS that year. The reverse applies when Toronto FC inevitably comes unglued and gets themselves sent to the U-Sector outdoor league. The numbers favour the Americans (remember, the NASL gets two entrants to the promotion playoffs to Canada’s one), which is probably only fair. Combined with their competitive advantage Americans need not fear a Canadian takeover of their national league, but if a Canadian team punches above their weight like this year’s Ottawa Fury then they can be justly rewarded.

The principle applies further down the pyramid. The USL and Puerto Rican champions play the bottom NASL teams: USL is far stronger than the Puerto Rican league but the playoff will shake out most pretenders. In Canada, let our regional semi-pro champions battle to send somebody to a promotion playoff against the basement-dwellers of the national league. Clubs would need the right to decline promotion for financial or other reasons, and reserve teams should probably not rise higher than the third division. It would also be important that Canada has a semi-pro league for every region, lest FC Edmonton be relegated to League1 Ontario, but that’s something that has to happen anyway.

Theoretically this could lead to regional leagues running short of teams: if League1 Ontario has a good run and half their teams get promoted, that would be inconvenient for the smaller number brought up to replace them. There would therefore have to be provision for extra promotion to keep leagues viable. Indeed, as the strength of the second and third divisions grow, both Canadians and Americans would doubtless want to bring additional teams to a higher level rather than stick with the relatively small NASL and Canadian league numbers forever.

At the bottom we integrate the various men’s amateur leagues that are currently thriving across Canada and the United States. Why shouldn’t Sunday players in the smallest communities have the chance to enter the semi-professional ranks if they’re willing and able? No doubt most of these teams would be incapable of winning promotion and be obliged to decline it if they ever could; the point is to give the exceptions a chance and allow grassroots teams, maybe even supporter-owned ones, to rise in stature and support until they’re on the biggest stage.

MLS teams would play more must-win games than ever before, bringing in fans and television viewers. A community in the driver’s seat for promotion would be captivated rather than trying to remember what the NASL regular season championship is called*. More teams at more levels would have more ways to draw more fans than in any other format, and when an underserved community could support a professional club they could make it on their merits rather than wait for a patron to pay an expansion fee. This all sounds brilliant, until you’re New York City FC, you just paid MLS a $100 million expansion fee, and there’s a real chance you’re swapping places with the Cosmos next year.

Indeed, the selfishness of empire-building ownership and league front offices is why our soccer pyramid is stuck in imagination. You’d have to be a much better politician than I to make it real.

(more…)

The Maple Leaf Forever! 2015 North American Soccer League Preview

By Benjamin Massey · March 26th, 2015 · No comments

Xaume OIleros/Power Sport Images/North American Soccer League

Xaume Oileros/Power Sport Images/North American Soccer League

It’s hard to view the upcoming NASL season dispassionately. Many fans have feared that, with their high spending, worldwide ambitions, and superior media profile, the New York Cosmos would become bigger than the league just as they did in the 1980s. But last year they were beaten in the regular season, didn’t get into the Soccer Bowl, and the world was instead treated to a marvelous tilt between founding NASL member Fort Lauderdale and high-profile expansion team San Antonio. The Scorpions won, under Canadian head coach Alen Marcina and captain Adrian Cann, and fans on both sides of the border could feel pretty good.

The Cosmos have apparently decided that this will not do. They spent something around one jillion dollars on new players, including Spanish legend Raúl, 37 years old but still the most prominent acquisition by any North American team since Thierry Henry, if not David Beckham. They also picked up Adam Moffat, who would be a headline grab for most NASL teams in most seasons. All this without losing anybody terribly important, and with the possibility of a fully healthy Marcos Senna wrecking havoc again. I would not like to be the New York Cosmos’ opposition.

But are the Cosmos so clearly the NASL’s best team in 2015? (Yes.) What about Minnesota United? (Not as good as the Cosmos.) Or do defending champions San Antonio match up? (No.) Will newly Brazilian-owned Fort Lauderdale fit Ronaldo for a jersey and a bib and challenge for the regular season championship, the Woosnam Cup? (No and no.) Below is one man’s prediction of how the 2015 North American Soccer League season will shake up, team by team, from first to eleventh, informed by a little table showing their 2014 statistics including TSR and PDO. You didn’t think I’d write a post this long without some tables in it, did you?

Note: this article contains many photos and without notes is pushing 10,000 words, which according to literary authorities is long enough to count as a “novelette”. The good stuff is therefore after the jump. Feel free to get through this in installments. Pack a lunch.

(more…)

A Prediction

By Benjamin Massey · February 25th, 2015 · No comments

EDIT, June 2, 2015: I was wrong.

After a trial with the New York Cosmos, Canadian central defender Nana Attakora has signed with the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions. Congratulations to him. San Antonio is a good organization and a great opportunity, and Attakora will play under one of the league’s three Canadian coaches, Alen Marcina. With the Scorpions’ defense threadbare now that Greg Janicki has moved closer to home and Adrian Cann’s career seems over, I tip young Nana to start (probably alongside former Toronto FC teammate Julius James).

Attakora, as you probably know, is an active member of the Canadian men’s national team pool and has been a regular for head coach Benito Floro. He started both friendlies earlier this year against Iceland and was in camp, without playing, for a 2014 match against Panama. At the time Attakora was without a contract, having failed to stick at MLS DC United. 25 years old, Attakora already has nine caps should have many more years of professional soccer ahead of him.

I predict Attakora will not receive another cap while at San Antonio.

There will be many excuses not to call him. Even at his best Attakora comes in behind David Edgar, Andre Hainault, and Dejan Jakovic on the centre back depth chart; most will add Doneil Henry. Attakora is a depth player but one who has answered Canada’s call with enthusiasm and not looked out-of-place on the pitch. We have always been forced to use our depth more than countries with domestic leagues and kinder schedules, and with friendlies, the Gold Cup, youngsters hosting the Pan-American Games, and World Cup qualifiers, the national pool will be under pressure this year. We will certainly see players of less significance and experience than Attakora called in.

Maybe Attakora will visit a camp or two under similar circumstances to Frank Jonke, who attended one of Floro’s camps in January 2014 after signing but before playing with FC Edmonton. However, no NASL player has yet made a cap for Floro, despite Canadians like Edson Edward and John Smits performing well at positions of need. Unattached players may certainly play, as Attakora did. So may players from the amateur ranks. But NASLers? Not yet.

Is it so implausible that Attakora, who Floro thought useful when he had no club, will be looked down upon now that he has one? He’s no prospect and won’t force his way into our best eighteen. Perhaps prospects like Hanson Boakai have a chance, but NASL players could hardly ask less from Floro than he’s given.

I hope that I am wrong; I often am. Attakora’s arrival in the NASL may motivate our coaches to learn more about that difficult but useful league. Edwards, the useful depth right back Canada has wanted for five years, may finally get his chance. Mallan Roberts may yet be dissuaded from playing for Sierra Leone, who would already have cap-tied him if not for ebola and a coaching change. But I don’t think so. High up in the Canadian Soccer Association there is respect for the NASL, but it has not yet been inherited by the technical staff.

Those Matt Van Oekel Statistics, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · December 18th, 2014 · No comments

Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of veteran second division goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel[1]. Virginia native Van Oekel had spent his entire seven-season professional career with various incarnations of Minnesota soccer clubs, starting with the Thunder in 2008, and has been the starter for the Minnesota Stars/United since 2012.

Though seldom classed among the NASL’s best Van Oekel’s had some good seasons behind stalwart defenses. He’s also one of the league’s most stylish players, his various haircuts being a bit of a running gag in NASL circles, and will fill the niche left by the departing Lance “Blue Steel” Parker. Probably more importantly, Van Oekel also brings experience to what is a pretty young goalkeeping corps: John Smits is the most experienced of the bunch with his three professional seasons.

We haven’t done one of these in ages! Here is Matt Van Oekel’s career to date. As always, regular season only, NCAA statistics are unreliable, NASL statistics are dodgy especially in 2013, and though he was the starter I haven’t got his 2007 Rutgers numbers at all[2]:

GP Strt MIN G A PKG Sh Sv GA Sv% GA/90 Yl Rd
2004 Longwood NCAA 17 17 1522 0 0 0 148 107 41 0.723 2.42 2 0
2005 Rutgers NCAA 10 9 829 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.714 1.09 0 0
2006 Rutgers NCAA 14 14 1279 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.813 0.84 0 0
2007 Rutgers NCAA statistics not available
2008 Minnesota USL-1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0
2009 Minnesota USL-1 1 1 90 0 0 0 5 4 1 0.800 1.00 0 0
2010 Minnesota USSF D2 6 5 474 0 0 0 29 19 10 0.655 1.90 1 0
2011 Minnesota NASL 1 1 90 0 0 0 2 2.00 0 0
2012 Minnesota NASL 25 25 2250 0 0 0 107 77 30 0.720 1.20 0 0
2013 Minnesota NASL 18 18 1620 0 1 0 27 1.50 1 0
2014 Minnesota NASL 20 19 1720 0 0 0 81 62 19 0.765 0.99 0 0

Van Oekel’s college career began in 2004 at Longwood University. Those bold Lancers were taking their first step into NCAA Division I and were massacred like Russians at Sevastapol. But you mustn’t blame Van Oekel: the freshman started all seventeen games, got a tonne of work, and posted surprisingly reasonable numbers for a guy who conceded 41 times.

Sensibly, rather than get shell-shock as the college soccer equivalent to Ben Scrivens, Van Oekel promptly bailed to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a cavalry motif apparently suiting Van Oekel just fine. As a sophomore he fought Lubos Ancin for playing time and saw action October 8 at Louisville, a team that included his new Eddies teammate Frank Jonke. Jonke scored twice on Ancin so Van Oekel rolled out of the bullpen for his first action in seven matches; Jonke almost immediately beat Van Oekel to get his hat trick. But the Jonke show against Ancin established Van Oekel as Rutgers’s starter for the rest of the year. Truly, this was a partnership meant to happen.

Though it’s hard to tell because of Rutgers’s inability to post statistics for his senior year, and a pre-season ACL injury hurt[3], Van Oekel ended his college career in 2007 with a good record but few accolades. He was left off the MLS Combine lists and ignored in that year’s SuperDraft despite a weak year for goalkeepers. (It’s not like his program was overlooked: his teammate in 2005 and 2006 was Nick LaBrocca, while 2007 featured a young Dilly Duka.)

Patience is a virtue, even for Lancers and Scarlet Knights, and soon Van Oekel got his chance. Prior to the 2008 season Van Oekel went on trial with the USL First Division Minnesota Thunder and impressed enough to win a contract[4]. The Thunder had a decent veteran team but were weak in goal: Joe Warren had just retired and Nic Platter would see his first season as a pro starter. A great opportunity for Van Oekel, though Platter played every minute in 2008. Still, Van Oekel’s option was picked up for 2009, and on September 13 he made his professional debut at Stade Saputo, stopping four shots to help Minnesota earn a 1-1 draw with the Impact.

The 2010 season was a big one for American second division soccer and it was big for Matt Van Oekel. The United Soccer Leagues and North American Soccer League were having their acrimonious divorce, playing one last campaign together as the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League. The Minnesota Thunder were no more: the team dissolved, but their hosts at the National Sports Center created a new club known as the NSC Minnesota Stars stocked with former Thunder players. Van Oekel was not signed but stuck around on amateur terms, and while Platter showed interest in the new team[5] he soon went to Martin Rennie’s Carolina Railhawks. The Stars replaced Platter with two veterans: ex-DC United man and Liberian international Louis Crayton[6], already a seemingly washed-up wanderer at age 32, and, seemingly crazily, 35-year-old ex-Thunder goalkeeper Joe Warren, who had actually been retired for the past four years.

Crayton ended his professional soccer career 45 minutes into the Stars’ first game on a bonehead play at Swangard Stadium when he tried to fake out Dever Orgill for no obvious reason, collided with the young Jamaican forward, and blew out his ACL[7]. Warren came on in relief and began one of the more improbably successful second acts in American soccer history. With Crayton gone, Van Oekel was officially added to the roster, saw a few games, and did well enough to earn a contract for the inaugural 2011 NASL season as the badly under-financed Stars mounted a surprisingly decent run. For 2011 Warren remained the starter and Van Oekel played only one match, in (quite pleasingly) Edmonton on May 23, where the Stars lost 2-1 to a Kyle Porter brace. It was hard to blame coach Manny Lagos for sticking with Warren: after a dodgy regular season the Stars surprised everyone by taking the first NASL championship thanks in no small part to Warren’s heroics. The veteran goalkeeper retired for (presumably) the final time after 2011, though, and Van Oekel’s option was picked up.

In 2012 Van Oekel finally ascended to the starting job for his fifth season in Minnesota. With his only competition being rookie Mitch Hildebrandt, Van Oekel was assured the bulk of the minutes, and though Hildebrandt impressed when he played Van Oekel was Manny Lagos’s man. Minnesota, Van Oekel included, was inconsistent but (stop me if this sounds familiar) rode a mediocre regular season to a stirring playoff run that ended only with a defeat on penalties to Tampa Bay in the NASL final. Van Oekel also took part in a memorable US Open Cup giant-slaying when he and the Stars knocked off MLS title contenders Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Van Oekel’s 2012 season was good enough to earn him an extended trial with MLS’s DC United[8]. It didn’t work out, and while Van Oekel signed a two-year contract with Minnesota the newly-rebranded United also grabbed veteran keeper Daryl Sattler, holder of the NASL Golden Gloves[9]. The good news for Van Oekel was that Sattler was injured midway through the spring season: the bad news was that both Van Oekel and Minnesota played poorly, conceding 14 goals in six games with a pretty lowly 0.611 save percentage. In the fall results improved, though we haven’t got the shooting data to say more: in any case Van Oekel played every minute between Sattler’s injury and the last two games of the year, when United was out of the running and Hildebrandt started.

Van Oekel hadn’t proven he was good enough to start for an elite team, but he hadn’t proven he wasn’t either. At the start of 2014 Mitch Hildebrandt had only played four NASL games and third-stringer Andrew Fontein, recently signed from Tampa Bay, was equally inexperienced. Manny Lagos stuck with Van Oekel through the first seven games , but an injury brought Hildebrandt in for the last two games of the spring. Van Oekel returned to the eighteen in the fall but Hildebrandt continued to play until August 9 when, in a game all Eddies fans will remember, he was sent off and Van Oekel took over. With Hildebrandt suspended Van Oekel played the next week against Indy and remained the starter for the rest of the season, apart from one game in Edmonton.

Now Van Oekel will face the first change of scenery of his professional career. For the second time he’s competing for a spot with the Golden Gloves winner: John Smits took the 2014 award for lowest goals-against average. Then again, goals-against average is not very meaningful as a statistic. Then again again, Van Oekel’s most successful seasons have come behind strong defenses. His 2012 was fairly good but nothing remarkable, his 2014 quite nice (in relatively limited minutes), but 2013 and his backup years showed little to get excited about. Van Oekel’s Minnesota teams have been consistently well-coached and solid under the tutelage of Manny Lagos; Edmonton is also quite a good defensive side but there’ll still be an adjustment there.

Van Oekel has struggled with consistency, which is probably the main reason Minnesota looked for other options while he was there. That said, the younger John Smits is no picture of consistency himself, and some of his mistakes have been high-profile ones. Certainly Van Oekel has the quality to fight for a starting job: equally certainly, neither he nor Smits will want to be the backup. Given FC Edmonton’s long and glorious history of serious goalkeeper injuries, getting veteran cover makes sense for Colin Miller. But the one team we thought would regularly start a Canadian goalkeeper in 2015 is now far from a sure thing.

(notes and comments…)

That Lance Laing Contract Extension

By Benjamin Massey · October 15th, 2014 · No comments

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

You no doubt heard yesterday that FC Edmonton extended the contract of defender/midfielder Lance Laing, along with first-year forward Tomi Ameobi[1]. I won’t say much about Ameobi: when he was on trial this preseason I was dubious. He looked out of shape and I preferred domestic options[2]. Edmonton coach Colin Miller signed Ameobi in spite of my warnings and naturally he’s worked out fine, doing some tough work while Daryl Fordyce and Frank Jonke have been injured and fully earning a new deal. (Why are you still reading this website? I don’t know shit! Go read a book or something useful!)

It’s Laing I want to talk about today. He is the rare player who everybody loves. Casual fans have a speedy, hard-working left-footer with a bit of flash who takes set pieces well and scores goals: he stands out to even the most uninformed eye. The diehards adore him: his first year in Edmonton got him 2013 FC Edmonton Supporters Group MVP[3] and he’s a dead cinch to repeat in 2014. He has a decent league-wide reputation, NASL Best XI in 2011 with buzz for this year, plus a Player of the Week on August 25[4]. 26 years old, Laing is the perfect age to be a major building block for Miller, and his move up to left midfield is widely credited with reviving Edmonton’s playoff hopes. And, despite being a Jamaican who played in Fort Lauderdale before joining the Eddies, Laing is crazy enough to spend his winters in Edmonton. He ticks all the boxes and reaction to his extension has been universal pleasure.

I’m not convinced Laing isn’t a better left back than a left mid. Yes, I know that Laing played left back in the spring season, it wasn’t great, he moved forward in the middle of the fall, and the rest has been history. But the spring season was nine games: it was self-evident as soon as they announced that schedule that drawing conclusions from it would be a fool’s errand. Laing’s ball-striking skills show up very well in mid, but we miss his ability to jockey attackers off the ball and his composure, particularly when we compare him to his erratic LB stand-in Kareem Moses. Combining with Eddie Edward at right back, also a good player but a “throwback” with strength and a focus on defensive fundamentals, made a good combination. I’m not saying move Laing back now; the team’s playing the best soccer in its history and you don’t fuck with results. But longterm I personally see Laing on the back line. Anyhow, doesn’t matter if I’m wrong again. He can play.

With the quality Laing’s demonstrated over five NASL seasons, naturally a few observers are saying he deserves a chance at MLS. If you’re one of those people you might be surprised to see Laing committing his future to the NASL before the season has even ended, rather than chasing trials next spring.

MLS seldom pays for second division players. Toronto FC gave then-USL-1 Montreal a transfer fee for Greg Sutton eight and a half years ago[5]; that’s the only example I know of a Canadian team getting cash from MLS or a Canadian MLS team paying the second division. Even Carolina fetishist Martin Rennie signed Etienne Barbara, Floyd Franks, Jun Marques Davidson, Matt Watson, and Brad Knighton on free transfers, but paid a fee for ex-Railhawk and Danish league player Brad Rusin. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, Laing’s extension is an iron-clad commitment to the second division until either his contract expires or (unlikely!) the Eddies dispose of his services.

Fans are always surprised how many core second division players make more money than they would in MLS. Remember, MLS salaries may be generous for designated players and into six figures for proven core players, but a player moving up from a lower North American division will in all probability make less than $60,000. Barbara, fresh off a league-leading goalscoring campaign and courted by his former manager who wanted him badly, made $87,500 in his one season as an MLS player[6]. More typical, but still on the high end, was Knighton’s $55,000 that season. For something more in line with coaches picking on the open market rather than grabbing their favourite players, look at Jeff Attinella’s $46,500 at Real Salt Lake, Evan Bush’s $46,500 at the Montreal Impact, Kyle Porter’s $54,992.45 total compensation at DC United[7], and Jonny Steele’s $47,562.50 total compensation during his first year in 2012.

The Whitecaps had to pay for Barbara because he was being so well-compensated in the second division: he’d already declined an approach from the Montreal Impact[8]. More than one prominent Canadian, and even a few FC Edmonton players, have also made more in the second division than they would have in MLS, a couple making more than MLS Barbara. In 2010 it was all-but-official that USSF D2 Whitecaps outbid MLS for Jonny Steele. Mozzi Gyorio, then fresh out of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, declined a contract offer from Sporting Kansas City over money[9]. Minnesota United’s Miguel Ibarra, recently called up to the American senior team, has been all over the news, and on American Soccer Now Brooke Tunstall quoted a coach saying Ibarra is also making more in the NASL than he would in MLS[10]. Chat to some well-established NASL stars and you’ll hear the same thing.

Of course the average MLS player makes more than the average NASLer, but FC Edmonton, and any other NASL team, can outbid MLS for players the Eddies want to keep and MLS wants to try out. And under the circumstances the players might be wise to accept. If you go to MLS you might become Jonny Steele, putting in a quality season that proves your quality and earns you six figures. Or you might become Etienne Barbara, blowing out your knee and falling off the face of the Earth. The playing level isn’t enough of an improvement to prove anything. If your ambitions are in Europe then NASL is almost as good a choice as MLS; just ask Hanson Boakai, already drawing interest from across the Atlantic. Sure, if Lance Laing signed with an MLS team for $50,000 he might get a Jordan Harvey sort of career… or he might be benched behind some designated player or other flavour of the month as so many quality players have been (waves to Phil Davies and Bryce Alderson).

Laing’s taken a couple cracks at MLS rosters, trialling with Real Salt Lake and Columbus in 2012 and getting good reviews. RSL Soapbox actually said “it pains me a bit to not have Laing.”[11] But Laing’s MLS discovery rights were held by the Crew and Columbus, knowing no other MLS team could touch him, let him twist[12]. The Crew decided to chase the flashy import for their backup left back and wound up with Nemanja Vuković (whoops!). This is part of what I mean when I say quality isn’t, in MLS, always the deciding factor, and no doubt part of the reason Laing is willing to remain an Eddie.

Edmonton won’t be able to fend off interest from MLS for every cherished player. The Eddies wanted to keep Kyle Porter, but after turning down a low offer from MLS in 2011 Porter bit the bullet in 2013 and signed with DC United. This will happen again: Major League Soccer has appeal to an NASL player that goes beyond money. An NASL player in his early twenties might want to emulate Andre Hainault, who after a short career in the USL First Division parlayed four seasons with the Houston Dynamo into what is now a regular role in the 2. Bundesliga. Porter’s MLS career hasn’t been an unalloyed success, but if he washes out he’ll have time to rebuild. If you’re Lance Laing, past the developmental stage of your career and enjoying a comfortable role on an ambitious team, the upside of a move like that is a lot smaller.

Christ, I’d take Edmonton’s money too.

(notes and comments…)

Questions for the NASL Canadian Division

By Benjamin Massey · July 11th, 2014 · 8 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Yesterday afternoon Duane Rollins set off fireworks around the Canadian soccer world. In his much-circulated post Rollins reported that the Canadian Soccer Association, the North American Soccer League, and the Canadian Football League are in negotiations to launch an all-Canadian division within the NASL, with a limited number of teams entering soon as the summer of 2015 and full divisional play by the summer of 2016[1]. This was the first major public discussion of a possibility that’s been kicked around Canadian soccer fandom as “more likely than you might think” for a couple of months, and follows CSA president Victor Montagliani telling Steven Sandor his desire for what’s been called a Canadian “division 1A”, weaker than Major League Soccer but national, fully professional, and with all Canadian teams[2].

The usual suspects have replied with a “no comment”, which is hopeful but still puts this strictly in the realm of the hypothetical. By our modest standards, though, this story is almost solid, and certainly has enough smoke to be taken seriously.

For my part this would almost be the best-case scenario, independence combining with Canada’s oldest rivalry: that with the United States. Fans in this country like seeing the New York Cosmos, coming to grips with the big-ass eagle to the south and, once in a while, winning the fight. Vancouver’s Cascadia Cup matches are must-watch for MLS fans, while the battles between the Montreal Impact and the Rochester Rhinos are sorely missed. A self-contained Canadian division within the North American Soccer League could allow us to control our own soccer destiny while retaining foreign competition.

In the Canadian Football League we have the only entirely Canadian professional sports league that’s worked long-term, with big crowds and higher Canadian TV ratings than the National Football League (more than double the best-watched MLS games)[3]. Much recent success has been thanks to TSN embracing the CFL, so if they show a similar attitude to soccer so much the better: TSN has lost national NHL rights starting this year, leaving them looking for content. And the 2016 NASL season, with a club or two in 2015, is a startlingly quick revolution. Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young, according to Rollins the driving force behind this initiative, was part-owner of the Carolina Railhawks from October 2008[4] until January 2011 when Traffic Sports took over[5]; he saw the second division’s best of times and the worst of times. The CFL will know what they’re getting into.

It’s early days, but almost all Canadian soccer must hope this dream comes true. Even those who think it won’t work will surely welcome the attempt. We could hardly ask for more, and if it does happen I will buy a season ticket to the nearest Canadian division team to me no matter who it is (unless it’s Calgary; then I’ll buy the second-nearest). This division would be the greatest development for Canadian men’s soccer since the old Canadian Soccer League and it is incumbent upon every fan of the domestic game to support it as fully as possible, for only with this sort of serious development have we got any shot of winning another Gold Cup or qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Most supporter concerns have invoked the image of 5,000-fan NASL crowds in 35,000-seat CFL stadiums. The photo at top left is from FC Edmonton’s last game in Commonwealth Stadium, a Voyageurs Cup match against Vancouver in 2013: only one half of the stadium was open and you can see how packed it was despite an interesting opponent and good traveling Whitecaps support. I’ve seen loads of soccer at Commonwealth and it takes a pretty special crowd to make that building live. This coming Sunday the Eddies host the Ottawa Fury at Commonwealth due to a delay in Clarke Stadium’s new pitch; with the World Cup final earlier in the afternoon expect a sedate night. Yet this shouldn’t be a game-breaker: if anybody knows how to fill up a CFL stadium it’s the CFL teams that do it.

If you’re worried about gridiron football lines on the field then there is good news. Of the four CFL stadiums supposedly looking at new NASL teams, Winnipeg has already hosted a women’s national team game on its field and the soccer lines looked good. The new Hamilton stadium has washable lines and is hosting soccer for the 2015 Pan-American Games[6], the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ new stadium has barely broken ground, and Calgary’s McMahon Stadium just installed new FieldTurf which is the same system used at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field[7]. On top of the new washable-line turf at Edmonton’s Clarke Stadium and Ottawa’s Lansdowne Field, that’s five of six stadiums with washable turf immediately and the sixth opening in 2017.

Nor should fans worry about MLS poaching the TV audience. There is little reason for a neutral fan to watch Major League Soccer games in a world when top European leagues and Liga MX are available easily on Canadian television. MLS ratings reflect this. NASL Canada ratings would reflect it too; apart from patriots or diehards who’ll watch Canadian games anyway there’s no TV audience for MLS to cannibalize. It’ll be fans, not neutrals, tuning in all the way in both leagues.

As for where players will come from, there seems to be an idea that the types of Canadians who saw 18,000 minutes a year for the Whitecaps, Impact, and Lynx have vaporized. In fact there are plenty of twenty-somethings like Paul Hamilton who are of undoubted quality but have been elbowed out of the professional game because there were too few opportunities close to home, plenty of academy players who turn 20 and can’t beat that $300,000 a year Chilean in the first team lineup so go get an education, plenty of CIS stars who knock the stuffing out of every opponent they meet but never get a chance to go any further. With a total of four five professional teams Canada’s soccer world is not markedly more overdrawn than the Americans, with their 16 MLS, eight NASL, and 14 USL Pro teams, invariably with more domestic players than the Canadian clubs, plus a larger overseas contingent. No doubt a Canadian division will have its teething pains but, with a sensible domestic player quota and reasonably ambitious salary structure, they should show NASL-standard on-field quality very quickly.

So I’m going to skip these much-discussed issues; instead, I will ask aloud four questions of a more long-term nature. The answers won’t change whether Canadian fans should embrace this division (they should), but will affect its viability over the years. They may even change whether it gets off the ground at all.

1. What impact will the USSF have on a Canadian NASL division?

Oh Lord I hope everyone has sorted this question out, because it’s a fatal complication if they haven’t.

Fans of the second division will remember that, in 2010 and 2011, there was a vicious streetfight between United Soccer Leagues, the ownership that eventually became the North American Soccer League, and the United States Soccer Federation over how to sanction a second-division league. The NASL owners had broken off from the USL First Division, despite its name the existing second division in North American soccer. Both USL and the new NASL wanted sanctioning as a second division, while the USSF tried to impose more stringent standards than ever to end decades of chronic instability. At times it looked like there might be no second-division soccer for an entire season, with only last-minute compromises averting disaster.

For the 2010 season the USSF forced both groups into an interim “USSF D-2 Pro League” with USL and NASL conferences[8] (that, for competitive reasons, did not perfectly reflect the ownership divide). A new order was finalized after much debate and heartache following the 2010 season: the USSF would sanction only a league where (among other rules) at least 75% of the teams were American and the primary owner of each team would have a net worth of at least US$20 million[9]. The USL decided not to try and meet these standards and merged their First and Second Divisions into today’s USL Pro, a third division which seldom admits it; the NASL won provisional second division sanctioning in the spring of 2011 and has more-or-less kept to the USSF provisions ever since.

This bare-knuckle brawl looked like it might sink the American second division entirely for a time and opened a breach between the second division and the third that has still not healed. But the USSF stuck to their guns because they believed that high standards were essential for the credibility of the lower divisions. So far events have borne the USSF out: in the last four seasons of the USL First Division eight teams folded, suspended operations, or self-relegated. Since the peace accord, seven more teams have been and gone in four seasons of USL Pro. By comparison in those four years only one NASL team, a USL First Division legend from Puerto Rico, has fallen[10].

What was, in soccer terms, civil war has concluded in an American second division that is probably more stable and more successful than at any other point in its history. Will the USSF, having won this victory, let a Canadian division run under the CSA’s rules into an American league without holding the Canadian teams to the American standards? We are mere Arctic nobodies, and the USSF may not care, but if six Canadian NASL owners threw in the towel the knock-on effect for American teams would be bad. Let’s hope that the USSF is obliging, and that all parties have figured this out in advance. Today FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury meet the USSF standards, but a CFL-owned Canadian division would smash them to pieces.

Firstly, the sheer volume of Canadian teams would break USSF rules. With confirmed expansions the North American Soccer League will have thirteen teams for the 2015 season, counting Edmonton and Ottawa. This is over the 75% American line with room for one more foreign team. A six-team Canadian division means a 17-team league with only 11 American teams: 64.7% American. The NASL would have to add another four American expansion teams for 2015 to get back to the USSF’s rules: a big ask. The NASL could get a one-year waiver, as they have for earlier issues, but the only real solution would be for the Canadian division to be exempt from USSF requirements entirely.

The USSF requirement for a “primary owner” (someone with at least a 35% stake in the club) with a net worth of US$20 million rules out the CFL’s several “community”-owned teams. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are, next to the Green Bay Packers, probably the most successful fan-owned club in North America: the Roughriders shares are held by ordinary fans who are forbidden to resell the shares for a profit and do not draw a dividend. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a non-profit owned by private shareholders, and the Edmonton Eskimos operate under a similar, though somewhat secretive, model. The Calgary Stampeders are owned by the Calgary Flames, who in turn are owned by a consortium of six men[11]; doubtless well-heeled but none of them necessarily a “primary owner”.

If the CSA calls the shots for a Canadian division this is no problem. These ownership groups have all proven capable of handling much bigger sports teams than any NASL club, they have dead-certain stadium access in facilities ranging in quality from “hopefully getting torn down soon” (even McMahon isn’t as bad as some div-2 facilities over the years) to “brand new and quite good”, and a single-entity format would provide added stability. Community ownership should be no problem to the CSA — it should be no problem to the USSF either, really, provided they have the capital. Anyway, in Canada the community model has treated us well, but this is an American league.

There are other, smaller problem areas. Regina would fall short of USSF population requirements: they require 75% of division 2 teams to play in a metro market of 750,000 people, but the population of metro Regina was 232,090 in 2013[12]. This is not a problem on its own but could be a handcuff for the future if Victoria (357,327), Halifax (408,702), or London (498,623) show interest. And what about domestic player requirements? In the NASL, as in MLS, American players count as domestic on Canadian teams but not vice-versa[13]; the CSA would probably prefer that Americans count as foreign in Canada.

2. Will FC Edmonton be odd man out with the CFL owners?

FC Edmonton, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is owned by Tom and Dave Fath, Edmonton contracting magnates. The Faths are not associated with the Edmonton Eskimos, which in the event of a CFL-dominated Canadian division would put them in a unique and awkward position. Unlike the old A-League Aviators FC Edmonton has had no public trouble with the Eskimos; the Eddies have enjoyed the use of both Commonwealth Stadium and the indoor Commonwealth Fieldhouse when necessary, as well as becoming the dominant tenant at Clarke Stadium, an important Eskimos training ground. But, though relations might be good, they’re still competitors for the same summer entertainment dollars, and if the Faths become the lone independent wolves in a CFL division the situation could get awkward (the other existing Canadian NASL team, the Ottawa Fury, is owned by Jeff Hunt of the CFL’s Ottawa RedBlacks).

You might think an alliance with the Eskimos would be mutually beneficial, but Edmonton fans are still bitter over how, in 1999, the Eskimos bought the AAA baseball Edmonton Trappers only to sell them off to Round Rock, Texas in 2003 as part of a general exodus of AAA baseball from Canada[14]. If a Canadian division fails it’s too easy to picture an Eskimos-dominated FC Edmonton going the same way, while the Faths were able to stick it alone in 2011 and 2012. In any case the Faths, who have put big money into FC Edmonton and the local soccer community, deserve a real reward for their dedication rather than having the Eskimos shoved into their offices.

The good news is that the NASL, which has managed to avoid a revolving door of ownership so far, don’t seem likely to do anything shady with the Eddies. As I said, to an outward eye the relationship between FC Edmonton and the Eskimos is good, which matters. Moreover, unlike Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton, and soon Saskatchewan, the Eskimos don’t need to fill a brand new stadium. Commonwealth Stadium is owned by the city; not only is there no margin for the Eskimos in taking over FC Edmonton but it may limit the CFL team if they did. If FC Edmonton and the Eskimos can establish an attitude of genial, independent co-operation, we will have the best of both worlds. Likewise, if the Eskimos want to buy and the Faths want to sell, congratulations to the happy couple. The only bad result would be, immediately or down the line, some sort of CFL squeeze play against the recalcitrant Eddies. It’s probably a long shot, but Trappers fans are still chafing.

3. What about potential expansion to non-CFL cities or under non-CFL owners?

So let’s say that the Eddies get along fine with the CFL and everybody is happy, the Canadian division is doing well, all the teams are making money (or at least not losing too much of it), and success is in the air. Over in Victoria, Highlanders owner Alex Campbell decides he wants a piece of this action, picks up the phone, and tries to get Victoria its first fully professional soccer team since the Vistas folded in 1990.

Outsiders may be surprised how realistic this is. Victoria attracts good crowds for USL PDL, has good ownership, passionate supporters, little summer sports competition beyond a merry-go-round of insolvent semi-pro baseball teams, and getting to Whitecaps games on the ferry is enough of a hassle that it’s clearly its own market. Two stadiums, venerable Royal Athletic Park downtown and Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, would be acceptable for professional soccer with some work and, in the case of Royal Athletic Park, a new stand. The Highlanders have been first in line for “teams that should promote from PDL to professional” almost since they first kicked off, but they’ve had to wait while the Ottawa Fury of all teams parleyed 300-man crowds into NASL action thanks to a new stadium and a rich owner. A professional Highlanders team is a not-so-secret wish for Canadian supporters from coast to coast.

But in our hopeful future there are six owners in the Canadian division and five own CFL teams. Campbell has no skin in the CFL and can’t possibly buy in: you can just about imagine an NASL side at a spruced-up RAP or Centennial but try to put a CFL game there and the mind rebels. So would the CFL owners accept someone outside their community for the sake of their soccer operation even if it doesn’t help their main business? Where would their priorities lie?

What if some brave multi-millionaire in, say, Surrey, sensing an under-served market in Metro Vancouver, decides to get into the soccer business and damn the consequences of competing with the Whitecaps? If he could get a stadium it might work. Will David Braley protest an infringement on BC Lions territory (the Leos even train in Surrey)? Will whoever owns the Argonauts in five years object if the Toronto Lynx decide they’ve had enough of USL PDL and want into NASL Canada? What if, as seems possible, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment buys the Argonauts and becomes an influential voice against competition with their Toronto FC? The Saskatchewan Roughriders have viewed the whole province as their sacred inheritance for generations; what if somebody wants to put a soccer team in fast-growing Saskatoon?

Does the NASL control expansion? In that case an important aspect of our soccer future would still be in American hands, however benevolent. Does the Canadian division control its own expansion? In that case it is effectively controlled by the CFL and may come second to the big business. Does the Canadian Soccer Association control expansion? That would give us important flexibility, but it would also leave an important business matter to a party with no cash on the table. A negative answer to this question would be no reason not to give this project less than full-throated support, but they are questions worth asking and having answered before the Calgary Mustangs and Winnipeg Blue Fighters kick off.

4. Where can we go from there?

Let’s be optimists. Let’s assume that this NASL Canada experiment is a total success. TV ratings are decent, attendances are pushing five digits, all the teams are healthy, a few outsiders have bought in, we’re up to say eight teams. It’s the year 2022, there’s just been another World Cup which Canada damned near qualified for, and a 35-year-old Ben Massey is still writing this shitty blog and asking the world what we have to do next?

I picked the year 2022 for a few reasons: first the World Cup (experts agree that 2022 is the soonest Canada could realistically have a qualifying team), and second because if this Canadian division does kick off in 2016, in the summer of 2022 it’ll be entering its seventh season. The original Canadian Soccer League lasted six. It’ll be a bellwether moment for those who laboured, endlessly, for a Canadian professional league and who never lost hope.

So the Canadian division is alive and well. What’s the end game?

Do we remain part of the NASL? If it’s worked so well for us why not? But if Canadian soccer grows in strength relative to our American rivals this relationship could sour. The NASL, unlike MLS, has had a Canadian influence since day one but the centre of its weight will always, inevitably, be in the United States. American fans may start muttering “why are we propping up the Canadian program?” Even if they don’t, independence is its own reward… but so is stability, so is a large base of friendly teams on which to draw support, and the best of Canada and the best of the United States scrapping over the Soccer Bowl every year is just so much fun.

There will probably be three Canadian MLS teams, plus affiliates in American leagues like the coming Whitecaps USL Pro entry, still outside our domestic pyramid. By 2022 that pyramid should include good semi-pro soccer from coast-to-coast, combined with our existing solid amateur leagues; if we have our professional division thriving the MLS teams would be a glaring absence. Probably the three biggest and best teams in the country, still going their own way. If the Canadian division 1A is a success then unifying the Canadian professional teams, on some terms, must be a long-term goal, but with the glamour of Major League Soccer and the restrictions of MLS single-entity ownership is that even imaginable?

The question of youth training will have to be faced. Not every CFL team with a soccer interest will decide to develop their own players in the manner of FC Edmonton, but hopefully some will, and then we enter the murky waters of youth territories. The Vancouver Whitecaps already get grief for poaching TFC Academy alumni like Russell Teibert or other Ontario boys like Bryce Alderson, while the Whitecaps probably wish they had one of their former youths, Hanson Boakai, back from Edmonton. Now add six more professional teams fighting over the same pie. Will it be a free market, will there be a territory system, will certain standards be mandatory or will each individual club wing it according to their inclination and resources, and how will this relate to the community clubs and private academies that already fill the country and don’t always get along with their professional brethren?

And, of course, you’ll have zealots like me looking thoughtfully on this beautiful landscape and saying things like “do you know what we need? Promotion and relegation” or “we’re losing ground in the women’s game, where is the Canadian W-League?” Could any of these things happen? The owners of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trying to pack a 35,000-seat stadium with soccer fans may not look fondly at a money-losing women’s diversion, and they definitely wouldn’t like their team relegated to the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Wheat League (average attendance 36 moms). Is it worth trying to lay the groundwork for these grand goals now, while the structure is still malleable, or is the risk of losing the Canadian division altogether too great to be worthwhile?

And let’s be clear!

Even if the answers to all four of those questions are negative, we would still have a huge advance in Canadian soccer. A six-team Canadian NASL division that exists by USSF sufferance, insists on a CFL monopoly in its ownership, and has no long-term plans for anything beyond putting bums in seats in CFL stadiums fourteen weekends a year? That would still be fantastic news, because at worst it would be a massive increase on what we have, and at best such a division would be the nucleus around which something magnificent, broad, and sustainable would grow.

But, if this division takes off, Canada has an incredible opportunity for a short-cut to the professional soccer respectability that has quite literally eluded us since Confederation. Such moments come less than a mere “once per lifetime” and should not be squandered. The Americans got their break in 1993, with soccer-mad billionaires and a World Cup combining to create Major League Soccer, and whatever else you might say about MLS it’s clearly been good for them. We should, if anything, be even more ambitious, from the CSA through the CFL to every one of the fans been waiting for a chance like this all their lives.

(notes and comments…)

FC Edmonton Cuts Hamilton; Fans Scream

By Benjamin Massey · March 19th, 2013 · 2 comments

FC Edmonton/Canadian Soccer Association

FC Edmonton/Canadian Soccer Association

So farewell then Paul Hamilton. FC Edmonton today announced a parting of ways with Hamilton after much speculation[1]. Worries developed after Hamilton was not included on the list of the first sixteen players confirmed by FC Edmonton for 2013[2]; worries that sadly turned out to be completely true.

It’s not every day a team cuts the man who was clearly its best defender. For once that’s not just my amateur scouting report but the opinion of the FC Edmonton Supporters Group, who named Hamilton the team’s 2012 MVP[3], the fans who voted for Hamilton as the team’s best defender[4], and of course the North American Soccer League, who named Hamilton as the sole Canadian and sole FC Edmonton representative in its 2012 Best XI[5]. There’s no controversy; anyone paying attention rated Hamilton at or near the very top of NASL defenders. In my books he was the team’s second-best player for the past two seasons, a bit behind Shaun Saiko and well ahead of Kyle Porter (who got his MLS chance at last and is off to a good start at DC United).

FC Edmonton was dead last in 2012 but Hamilton can’t take the blame. The Eddies were fifth in the NASL in goals against; not bad, given that the team endured four goalkeepers and a botched-together defense apart from Hamilton and, later in the year, Antonio Rago. Hamilton and Rago carried a backline that featured Jon-Jo Augustin and Kevin Hatchi as the only two other defenders who got more than 1,000 minutes, neither of whom was at all good. Hatchi, Fabien Vorbe, Fabrice Lassonde, and Adam West were all given significant minutes at left back; Lassonde didn’t seem bad but was cut early. Hamilton never had a natural centre back beside him unless you count David Proctor, who showed up mid-season and acquitted himself well but is apparently more comfortable on the outside or in defensive midfield. Not only did Hamilton survive Harry Sinkgraven’s Dutchsterfuck of a defense but he emerged looking better than before. He had a tremendous season under very trying circumstances, and now he’s gone.

Not only was Hamilton valuable on the field but he was an asset off it. I’ve never met Hamilton but have been told by usually-critical judges that he’s an intelligent, soft-spoken young man who fits in well. He’s given his time to supporters and the community, most memorably raising $700 for the Stollery Children’s Hospital as the face of Delux Burger Bar’s “Hammy” burger[6]. He’s from Calgary and was one of the few familiar Albertan faces left on the FC Edmonton first team, with Saiko and Rago. He was almost unanimously popular; FC Edmonton’s Facebook update on Hamilton’s departure has a chorus of “nooo”s and one wag’s “he sucked on Sons of Anarchy.”[7]. At 24 years old (25 on Saturday) Hamilton was also just the right age for a team looking to compete long-term.

So he was widely recognized as a brilliant player, he was from the area, everyone loved him, and he got cut. What the hell happened?

When he arrived in Edmonton, new head coach Colin Miller proclaimed that everyone was a trialist[8]; the old coach’s canard that no job was safe. Cutting Hamilton, along with other popular players like Chris Kooy and David Monsalve and recently-acquired starter-presumptive Martin Nunez, sure proves Miller meant it. But none of those three were on Hamilton’s level. By all accounts Hamilton didn’t have a great training camp, but surely a man of experience like Miller would know better than to cut a player who contributed brilliantly for two years because of a bad month in preseason.

Then again, this past winter wouldn’t have been Miller’s first experience with Hamilton. Hamilton played with the Whitecaps Residency USL PDL team in 2009, including 180 minutes in two games against Miller’s Victoria Highlanders. The Highlanders scored six goals in those two games; presumably not an impressive defensive performance. Miller joined the Whitecaps in February 2010 as an assistant coach[9] and, despite being signed to a one-year deal with an option[10], Hamilton did not return to the Whitecaps in 2010, preferring to take his chances with FC Edmonton in their “exhibition season”. Perhaps Miller already had a bad impression of Hamilton, one which was not improved by those first weeks of training camp. In February, when speculation about Hamilton’s future was swirling, Miller gave Steven Sandor a very mixed review:

Miller, who inherited a team that finished last in the NASL under former coach Harry Sinkgraven, understands that supporters might be surprised at some of the decisions he’s made so far — but he wants it to be clear that this is his team. And that means that even players who made the NASL Best XI last season aren’t immune from criticism.

“I have spoken to Paul (Hamilton), he knows he has work to do,” said Miller. “There are weaknesses in his game that I have seen, and that we have talked about. I think the experience that Albert Watson (the Northern Irish veteran who came to FCE from Linfield FC) brings will help Paul with his game.”

“But we finished last in the league, last season. Last! We can’t keep things as they were. That’s not to say that Paul Hamilton was the reason we finished last, not at all, but the guys here know what’s expected of them. They know what their deficiencies are. I can’t control what happened last season. But I can control it now that I am here.”[11]

Maybe Hamilton fell victim to financial realities. There are no figures on the record, but it’s widely said that many of the players FC Edmonton signed in 2010 and 2011 were on surprisingly large salaries, and FC Edmonton’s 2012 payroll was probably the highest in the NASL (with, through no fault of FC Edmonton’s, the lowest attendance). Not all of Edmonton’s new players would have come cheap: right back Wes Knight, for example, has been a first-class second-division player for years and should command a decent price if anyone does. Other NASL veterans of some note have also signed on. They’ve brought in two Northern Irishmen, and European imports are always more expensive than they deserve. Nobody could really blame Tom and Dave Fath for trying to stop the bleeding; they’re already the most committed soccer owners Edmonton has ever seen. Perhaps Hamilton was simply making more money than the front office felt they could bear and the two parties couldn’t agree on a renegotiated deal. As I write this, Hamilton has told Sandor that “there were discussions of a pay cut”; that surely played some role in his exit[12]. Still, unless Hamilton’s salary was truly astonishing or the new guys came awfully cheap, that would be penny wise pound foolish. Apart from Knight and maybe Neil Hlavaty none of the new Eddies are in Hamilton’s ballpark as a player.

Perhaps it was a combination of both these factors. Dwight Lodeweges or Harry Sinkgraven may have been willing to fight for Hamilton but if Colin Miller didn’t rate him and money had to be saved somewhere… it would be a pity if Edmonton, which has been willing to invest heavily in building its organization for three years, lost one of its strongest players who’d been around since before Day One because they wanted to save a few dollars.

Edmonton will presumably rely on Proctor plus its new arrivals at centre back. One of them, Carlyle Mitchell, is on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps; if I were to sum up Mitchell in NASL terms I’d call him “a poor man’s Paul Hamilton.” Edson Edward, ex-of the Puerto Rico Islanders, and former Fort Lauderdale Striker Lance Laing are both outside backs. Neil Hlavaty can play CB but you wouldn’t want him to if you could help it. The only two natural centre backs signed permanently this winter were Reserves product Mallan Roberts[13], who experts have high hopes for but is a 20-year-old rookie, and new captain Albert Watson, who signed from one of the few European first divisions probably worse than the NASL (Northern Ireland) and two weeks ago tore his MCL[14]. It’s a thin group; not the sort of roster you’d cavalierly throw the likes of Paul Hamilton off.

And what’s next for Hamilton? This is a bad time of year to be cut, with training camps generally set across the NASL and USL Pro. Recall the fate of Philippe Davies, who was released by the Vancouver Whitecaps in January 2012[15] but had to wait until July to sign with the USL Pro’s Richmond Kickers[16], or Mozzi Gyorio turning down a contract from Sporting Kansas City in March 2012[17] and not turning up until January of this year with Fleetwood Town in England’s League Two[18]. If Hamilton is looking at six to nine months out of soccer, that’s a problem. Worse, he might leave the game altogether; he had been an education student at Trinity Western and after four years of school might want to earn an honest living. That might be good for him but it would be bad for us. These are the sorts of players Canada simply cannot afford to lose.

There are certainly Major League Soccer teams which could use a player of Hamilton’s ability to fill out depth on the back four, such as for example oh I don’t know the Vancouver Whitecaps. Hamilton, at 24 years old, was acknowledged as one of the best defenders and maybe the very best in the NASL; that compares pretty favourably to Brad Rusin, who drew the same sort of praise at the same age (but received fewer honours because of injury). Hamilton would certainly have a lot more to offer the Whitecaps than the likes of Adam Clement, recently signed to the Whitecaps first team. And seeing a player like Gale Agbossoumonde, who couldn’t carry Hamilton’s jock, go through a much-hyped draft lottery and get the number six shirt in Toronto while the domestic Hamilton sends out resumés makes you laugh to keep from crying. But the other side of that is Hamilton would have to take MLS depth player money. Thanks to the salary cap, men like Hamilton are almost unsignable in MLS: too proven to be happy with $46,500 per year, too uncertain to be worth chancing real money and an on-budget roster slot because “everyone knows” you shouldn’t pay much for Canadians out of the NASL, while you should throw huge sums at inferior Europeans or South Americans with “flair”. Martin Rennie is an exception to that rule if anyone is, but so far only for former Railhawks.

If I were Martin Rennie, I’d be talking Hamilton’s ear off trying to lure him in for the rest of the season. You couldn’t ask for better cover behind Rusin and Andy O’Brien, you really couldn’t. But I know that won’t happen because it never does. What a loss for FC Edmonton, and if Hamilton doesn’t land on his feet what a loss for Canadian soccer.

(notes and comments…)