2012 North American Soccer League First and Second Half Results and Standings

By Benjamin Massey · December 3rd, 2012 · 3 comments

For the satisfaction of future researchers, here are the standings of the 2012 North American Soccer League if the schedule had been split along the lines enacted for 2013.

I’m posting this because I drew it up for my own information and it’s conceivable someone else might want or be interested in it. This post is pretty much pure number dump.

As an attempt to replicate the 2013 schedule for 2012 this is obviously imperfect. Not every team concluded the “first half” of the season on or around the same date. Teams didn’t play the same number of home and away games in each half. The schedule is not even remotely balanced. This is just for fun, as well as for the sake of grabbing a few basic details (how many meaningless games the poorer teams would have played in this format, primarily).

As these are just the first-half and second-half results for the NASL last year, it may be interesting to see which teams had hot starts and which teams ended surprisingly well. I knew Atlanta had a real surge during the Eric Wynalda days and after he left, for example, but I didn’t appreciate how considerably they had improved. However, there will be no analysis in this article beyond a few data points.

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Portland Can Eat Me

By Benjamin Massey · July 23rd, 2010 · 2 comments

Until last night, the Whitecaps had not lost in their last ten matches and not lost at home for the entire 2010 season. It’s easy to forget with their completely horrifying scoring totals but the Whitecaps aren’t a bad team. One of the three or four best in the USSF D2, certainly, and a side that ought to make some noise come playoff time.

But Portland? God, it had to be Portland.

It all started out so well. We had history in our corner, with Portland going winless at Swangard Stadium since May of 2004. The team was playing well whereas the Timbers were no longer the lead pipe cinch as “best team in the second division”. Oh, sure, they have Ryan Pore, who is so far and away the league’s most valuable player they’re probably saving time and engraving his name on the trophy right now. But that’s one man against the best defense in the division. I was quietly confident as I sat down to watch the webcast on my dinky little laptop.

(Okay, that’s a lie. I was terrified. I’m always terrified when we play the Timbers, particularly of late, because they’re better than we are. It’s not the same as playing the Impact or Toronto FC, but the Timbers were for years the whipping boys of the Cascadia Cup and to see them incarnate as a USSF D2 powerhouse makes me quiver in fear.)

Teitur Thordarson was continuing his odd “we don’t need no stinking strikers” experiment and, with Randy Edwini-Bonsu on the limp due to a minor leg injury, took it even further than usual. Cornelius “All Smoke No Fire” Stewart was the only true striker in the lineup, getting the start up front with converted midfielder Nizar Khalfan. The bench was equally offense-deficient with not a single striker at Thordarson’s disposal. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see Ethan Gage recalled from exile, and Alex Semenets is a fine Residency midfielder with some finishing chops, but Teitur had apparently decided to win this one 0 – -1.

For the first fifty minutes, Vancouver and Portland just traded body blows. Even on a little laptop screen in Edmonton it was something to watch. It’s an axiom that the players never take a rivalry as seriously as the fans, but I can’t remember ever seeing Vancouver and Portland face each other and play any way other than their best. Portland, as you’d expect, had more possession but did less with it than Vancouver, which was able to penetrate the Timbers defense slightly more easily.

Although why I criticized Teitur’s selection I don’t know, because Khalfan was a dynamo. He brings pace and power, if nothing else, and that’s a pretty formidable conversation. Philippe Davies was playing on the right wing and had another of his increasing number of terrific games, but his most important play was rather a limp one. He tried a cross, probably to Stewart, but misplayed it and it skipped rather weakly to Khalfan. No problem, though. Nizar buried it. 1-0 Whitecaps, and one more goal for Vancouver than I thought they were going to get.

In the end, it was a feat of individual talent which swung things. Ryan Pore, that devilish son of a bitch, caught a nice through ball and went for a run. Greg Janicki has been one of Vancouver’s most reliable defenders all season but he was caught flat-footed on this one and was well behind Pore as he streaked in on a breakaway. Desperate, Janicki dove out and tripped Pore from behind, leaving the Timbers star to fall ass over teakettle and leaving referee Michael Edmunds no option but to call for a penalty and send Janicki off.

The only thing worse than a red card offense is a clear red card offense. Dammit, Greg, you couldn’t have given us some controversy? But no. Pore took the penalty, of course, and scored, of course, and it was 1-1.

Down to ten men, the Whitecaps kept their spirits up. Once again the game started to ebb and flow between the two goals, with the Timbers trying to press their advantage and Vancouver giving them everything they could handle. Vancouver played a slightly more chippy style, with Davies picking up a yellow card and very nearly grabbing another soon after (an astute Thordarson replacing the young Canadian midfielder with another young Canadian midfielder Alex Elliott), and conceded more free kicks than any of us would like to see. Ryan Pore took one of them in the seventy-first minute, lobbing a little ball into the area, easy enough for the defenders to deal with, and no! Jay Nolly! Get back in your goal! What are you doooooiiiiiiiiing? and it was 1-2.

Seeing Jay Nolly screw up, and screw up so egregiously, was a shock to the senses. Pore’s ball was uncharacteristically tame, from him, but Nolly had come thundering off his line to try and grab it. He never came close, never could have come close, and the ball kicked off a Whitecaps defender towards Portland centre back Mamadou “Futty” Danso. With some surprising power and precision for a player at his position Danso slammed it into the Whitecaps goal with Nolly out of the picture, and the Timbers had it won.

Oh, there were some last formalities, of course. The Whitecaps seemed to have had a bucket of cold water dumped on their heads and played their balls out looking for an equalizer. Nizar Khalfan (again) had the best chance, forcing a remarkable save out of Steve Cronin on a hard-struck low-driven ball. But here is where Teitur’s defense-heavy bench burned him. When Stewart was flagging, as he always does late in matches, there was no possible way to get more offense on. Thordarson ended up bringing in guys like Justin Moose and Takashi Hirano, players with some knowledge of how to move the ball up but none whatsoever on how to finish it off. It wasn’t enough.

So the Timbers won, again. They retain the Cascadia Cup, which they won last year under similarly heart-breaking circumstances. It’ll almost be a relief to get to MLS next season and have Seattle re-join the competition, because that way if Portland whips us again we might be able to blame a third club for the standings turning out badly, Montreal Impact-style. Because there’s no silver lining here. We lost because we do stupid things sometimes, and the mortal enemy got to keep his silverware in his last appearance on our home grass.

Soccer sucks.

FC Edmonton… Life Watch?

By Benjamin Massey · June 21st, 2010 · No comments

Last night, sitting in my office, I put up a somewhat agitated post on Twitter. “Okay, FC Edmonton,” I said. “I’ll make you a deal. If you draw Colo-Colo or better, I’ll get on the bandwagon. NOT ONE SECOND EARLIER.”

Well, they lost. Yet here I am. World Cup? What’s that?

FC Edmonton being what it is, there was no broadcast of any sort of the game, be it audio or video, online or otherwise. Updates came courtesy FC Edmonton’s own Twitter account and, after the fact, eyewitness reports in Edmonton newspapers and on the Voyageurs forum. The Edmonton Journal buried their article on the game to the extent that it doesn’t even show up on their soccer page. You had to be looking to see anything about this, and judging from the announced crowd of only 5,573 not that many people were looking. The crowd was predominantly Chilean, cheering on Colo-Colo with full voice, while the nascent FC Edmonton supporters section received the odd looks and ignorant comments that is the lot of any trace of supporters’ culture in this country.

With fewer than 6,000 fans the club can’t be anywhere near breaking even on the million dollar payroll and the million dollars they spent bringing Colo-Colo to town (Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun estimates the club’s loss on the match at “well into six figures“). Moreover, Colo-Colo has replaced FC Edmonton as Vitória’s friendly opponent, allegedly on account of a team in eastern Canada welshing on a friendly with the Chileans and the club having guaranteed Colo-Colo three matches in Canada. To the extent that these friendlies are being held to prepare the team for a 2011 campaign, they are doomed to be a bit less effective now.

That’s the obligatory FC Edmonton bad news. For once, though, the good news outweighs it. First and foremost is FC Edmonton’s play. Thrashing the Montreal Impact reserves 3-0 was impressive, if hardly earth-shattering. But a 4-3 loss to Colo-Colo do the Edmontonians even more credit. It was Colo-Colo’s first game of their 2010-11 campaign, and it showed, but it doesn’t take away from the result. The game was somewhat sloppy and the Chilean champions were hardly overexerting themselves on the turf of Commonwealth Stadium, but all the same by all accounts FC Edmonton played them hard, took an early lead, and endured the Chilean fightback with great composure. The club has been bolstered by a few additional players, including former Ajax trainee and Canadian youth player Matt Lam, and while it’s hard to judge form without actually seeing the team there appears to be nothing but good news.

You’d have to be awfully optimistic to believe the great play will continue, of course. Phillip Araos of Colo-Colo bluntly said that he’d watched FC Edmonton practice and they weren’t that good. Their rosters of aging Dutchmen, a few promising players, and metro league plugs is still the same roster, even if Matt Lam has lent it some more skill and legitimacy. Nobody disputes that Dwight Lodeweges is a good coach but if he can mold that unit into something that’ll be competitive at the NASL level he’s a bloody miracle worker. But two games in they don’t seem to be as bad as the naysayers – and I was a very loud one – were saying.

Moreover, the attendance, while disappointing, is hardly devastating. The friendly schedule was only announced two and a half weeks ago, so there wasn’t a great deal of time for big ticket sales to materialize. 2,106 fans came through the gates of Foote Field for Edmonton’s first friendly against the Impact reserves, a Wednesday evening game against a completely inglorious opponent.  This isn’t a fantastic number but it was more than the opening night draws of USSF D2 Carolina, Miami, and Baltimore and the 2010 averages of Miami, Baltimore, and Minnesota. If FC Edmonton draws 2,100 fans a night in 2011, they won’t make money but they won’t be the NSC Minnesota Stars either. When the team is playing real games against real teams and has some publicity from their friendly season, though, attendance should increase.

Best of all, even with the financial dunking they’ve taken so far the owners seem non-plussed. In Terry Jones’s article linked above, co-owner Tom Fath seems at ease, if not exactly falling over himself with joy. Things are not going that well. FC Edmonton is by no means a certain success. But there have been a few small victories, and every great movement starts somewhere.

Vancouver – Carolina Post-Game: I'm Sorry, Did I Stutter?

By Benjamin Massey · June 10th, 2010 · No comments

Edit: well-traveled Canadian soccer journalist Duane Rollins informs me via Twitter that the stutter-step Barbara took – where he hesitated rather than came to a complete stop – is still legal. The irony of criticising a referee for not knowing a rule when I may not have known the rule myself is not lost on me.

I’ve got a confession to make. I didn’t actually watch the first half of the match between the Whitecaps and the Carolina Railhawks. You see, the game was being played simultaneously with the third period of Philadelphia – Chicago, Stanley Cup finals, game six, and there is still enough hockey-lover in me that I wanted to see the Stanley Cup awarded (which eventually it was). When the first few Blackhawks had finished skating around with their prizes I flipped on the live feed of the Whitecaps game just in time to see the ball placed at centre for the start of the second half. And the two teams battled it out for forty-five minutes, and nobody scored, and the Whitecaps, who draw more than Bob Ross, picked up another single point for their growing collection.

There was some second-half excitement. Doudou Toure got in about five minutes of very exciting action before being substituted out after an unfortunate clash of heads. Marcus Haber did not score but finally began to look useful, which is a case of awkward timing given that this was the last home match in his loan stint as the Whitecaps now embark on the road for five (!) matches and Haber will return to West Bromwich Albion at the end of June. Martin Nash played a whale of a game defensively and probably left his feet more often in that half than I’ve seen him all season. It wasn’t bad, really, but not much went on.

Which is a pity because all the action was in the first half. Ansu Toure’s second goal of the season, for example, built off of a splendid passing play and tapped into the back of the goal, the sort of play that the overly-fancy Whitecaps have attempted all season and actually pulled off maybe once. Or Carolina’s goal, which is drizzled in a simply stunning amount of controversy. In stoppage time at the end of the first half, Zurab Tsiskaridze was rocked going up for a ball at centre and spent some time down in a heap without drawing a foul as the Railhawks attacked the other way. The ball was worked into the area by Etienne Barbara of Carolina, who had it out with Nelson Akwari in a running battle through the area. At length, Barbara went down and referee David Barrie pointed to the spot, as they say, without hesitation.

The fans thought that Tsiskaridze had been fouled. The fans thought that Barbara hadn’t. So imagine their hooting and derision as Barbara stepped up to take the spot kick, and imagine the derision that turned into disbelief and open horror as Barbara performed the infamous paradinha, the stutter-step penalty move that has been popularized by South American footballers but spread around the globe. It is sometimes effective but frequently considered unsporting and against the spirit of the game. But lots of things are unsporting and against the spirit of the game; what’s important is that the paradinha has also been illegal since May. It wasn’t exactly a headline-grabbing rule change but one hopes that, oh, I don’t know, a professional referee would have been aware of it.

Personally, watching the replays, I think that Tsiskaridze had the misfortune to be hurt on a fifty-fifty ball and wasn’t fouled (he returned to play in the second half and seemed no worse for wear), and that Akwari was grabbing Barbara enough that a penalty was a realistic, if a slightly soft, call. But the botched paradinha stuns me. The rulebook says that, if a player attempts the stutter-step, he should receive a yellow card and the kick should be retaken. Not exactly the end of the world. Etienne Barbara is a professional striker, one of the best players on quite a good Carolina team, and a Maltese international. If given the chance he probably could have converted a second penalty and he doesn’t play rough enough for a yellow to be a serious issue. This game probably winds up a 1-1 draw all the same.

But oh my god. David Barrie gets paid cash money to officiate soccer games and he doesn’t stay up-to-date on changes to the rules of soccer. Screaming about second division refereeing is an extremely popular pastime (and one in which I have indulged from time to time) and this is one of the reasons why. Too many of the referees seem less like professionals and more like enthusiastic amateurs – “oh, you want me to come ref a game Wednesday? Cool! I’ll hose off my cleats!” One can almost picture the referee and his assistants at half sharing orange slices like six-year-olds in a youth league, such is the amateurism. I will miss a great deal about the second division when Vancouver moves up to MLS – the stadium, the fans, the atmosphere, the exclusivity and snob value of cheering for a club most of the city doesn’t care about – but one thing I will not miss is the refereeing. Yes, the jump to Major League Soccer and, with it, major league officiating will doubtless ease many a worried mind…

…oh, crap.

Okay. So, while “does not know the rules” is a fairly major complaint, it turns out every soccer fan in the continent has something to hate about their referees. Actually, it’s more like every soccer fan in the world, and I can think of a few Irish fans who were shouting obscenities at their monitors every time I bitched about a referee not knowing what the rules are. Benito Archundia may be the worst referee in the world but he’s also good enough to serve at approximately one hundred million World Cups. Bad refereeing is a universal problem, it seems. One from which there is no escape.

Seriously, though. The paradinha has been illegal for three weeks. You’ll let me have my irrational bitterness on this one, won’t you? Pretty please?

FC Edmonton Update/Death Watch

By Benjamin Massey · June 6th, 2010 · 6 comments

FC Edmonton will not play a league game for about ten months, and yet I’m already so far down on them I could probably finish their basement.

FC Edmonton’s roster came out last week, of course, and the only surprise is its mediocre nature. In addition to the previously-reported aging Eredivisie men, there is former Middlesbrough prospect Shaun Saiko, rejected by the English academies and returned to his home town. There are some uninteresting former members of the Vancouver Whitecaps academy, also Alberta natives. There are two Brazilians new to the North American professional ranks. 22-year-old Neto Miguel is a defender from São Paulo who moved to Canada at age 17, an engineering student at the University of Calgary, and a CIS player for two schools whose closest previous run to professional experience was four months training at Corinthians. 25-year-old Thiago Silva moved to Edmonton from Brasilia last year and is playing soccer at NAIT, a technical school not known for athletic achievement. To describe Miguel as “mediocre” would be to do him a favour and Silva is below even that level.

There are a few decent names. Saiko figures to be a decent second-division player and it’s good to see him back in soccer, and Sam Lam was quite a good CIS player with the excellent University of Alberta program who trialled in Seattle. Striker Kenny Sacramento is only 21 years old, saw some time training in Europe, and is a star indoor player with the Winnipeg Alliance of the CMISL. Kyle Yamada even played with Canada’s national soccer team! Well, our national beach soccer team. But none of them are men you can build a second-division team around and the lineup, filled out with players plucked out of AMSL rosters and bad CIS programs, would be an uninspiring USL PDL side. There are no players with extensive second-division experience even though there are some, such as former Aviators and Whitecaps midfielder Gordon Chin, who have Edmonton connections and are readily available.

This is intentional, believe me. FC Edmonton also announced their friendly schedule and what we see is a collection of USL PDL teams as well as the Montreal Impact (reportedly sending their academy rather than the first team) and, as a closer, Miami FC. Giving their organization credit, perhaps they know the level of players they have and are setting their sights accordingly. Certainly, this lineup is likely to be an affordable one, which is an admirable concession to the realities of professional soccer in Edmonton.

The only stunning thing about these friendlies is the price of a ticket: FC Edmonton will charge $25 for a reserved seat and $20 for general admission. This compares to a $26.50 seat at Swangard Stadium for the silver section – seats under cover and better than anything at Foote Field – and $20 for a reserved spot in the roughly-Foote-equivalent bronze section. The Victoria Highlanders, one of Edmonton’s friendly opponents, charge $17.25 for a non-premium seat.

The point is, a minimum of $80 in tickets to take the family of four out to a bad stadium and watch a team of metro league players play a friendly against semi-professionals with hardly a single name recognizable by even hardcore supporters is a big ask.

Of course, on the other hand stand the international friendlies. Portsmouth is the biggest name, hitting Commonwealth Stadium on July 21. But Chilean powerhouse Colo-Colo and Brazilian first division side Vitória are certainly far better opponents than a club of FC Edmonton’s calibre would seem to deserve. Portsmouth’s in a place financially where they might do anything for money. Even so, getting three teams of this calibre to travel such a distance can’t have been cheap for the FC Edmonton administration, and is if nothing else a sign that they’re willing to spend money to make money. Even casual soccer fans would show up to see Portsmouth, relegated or not, and while Colo-Colo and Vitória aren’t household names they’re at least respectable teams which will hopefully draw a crowd.

The Faths and Mel Kowalchuk have some experience with international friendlies: experience that isn’t universally positive but apparently hasn’t put them off. An Everton – River Plate friendly last year at Commonwealth Stadium was a bit of an attendance disappointment, bringing only 15,800 through the turnstiles at Commonwealth Stadium, but ticket prices were high and from a financial point of view the Fath brothers were sufficiently persuaded that they’re bankrolling FC Edmonton and these three international adventures.

So why am I worried? I’ve got a real emotional stake in FC Edmonton and would be gutted to see them fail, of course. And I see a lot of ingredients for a fall in this team as it’s consisted. Their website is enthusiastic but amateurish, running blog posts on the UEFA Champions League and fun but superficial podcasts. So soccer moms and casual fans – you know, the people who make soccer profitable in this country – go to a lousy stadium for soccer, pay USSF D2-level money to get in, and a team of amateurs and old men play obscure opposition, and if somehow the kids do get hooked news or decent on-line resources aren’t coming from the club so far. The international friendlies will be fun but they’re with opponents far superior to even an average Canadian second-division team. They are, essentially, gimmicks, and that may bring fans but it will also bring cynicism.

If FC Edmonton improves their media work, manages expectations, and bolsters the 2011 roster with the USSF D2 veterans that will let them beat Miami FC in their final game, they might get somewhere. If they could open the wallet and grab an old, familiar, respected name like Wes Charles or a can’t-be-long-for-Montreal Eduardo Sebrango (NOT RICK TITUS), even better. But this is a concerning start.

Expanding the Voyageurs Cup

By Benjamin Massey · May 7th, 2010 · 5 comments

The Voyageurs/cansoc.org

I disagree with just about everything Duane Rollins writes at the 24th Minute. That’s part of the reason I read his non-Toronto posts so attentively: it’s good to see an opposing perspective argued passionately and intelligently. Keeps me on my toes. But today my attention is focused on his new Western writer, Brandon Timko, and a subject near and dear to my heart: the expansion of the Voyageurs Cup.

Why so much interest in getting an additional collection of minnows and also-rans into a tournament that, as much as the diehards love it, does not yet resonate with the day-to-day public? Because a true Canadian Soccer League, as opposed to an Ontario league that assumes the name and style, seems to be a pipe dream. A pipe dream we all share but one which regardless has no chance of coming true. The Voyageurs Cup already exists. The Canadian Soccer Association is driving it with, from them, unaccustomed enthusiasm and ambition. It already rings truer among Canadian fans than the US Open Cup does south of the border, and not just because of the CONCACAF Champions League berth at play. If anything, the relatively insignificant Champions League is a neat opportunity that would come as a pleasant reward along with the real prize.

With FC Edmonton coming into the North American Soccer League in 2011, we seem set to have a four-team tournament until Edmonton goes tits-up (tentatively scheduled for 2012) and a four-team round robin isn’t a grueling schedule. But Rollins is aiming higher than that. He wants the CSL, PCSL, and USL PDL teams involved, as well as local amateur sides. Western and eastern brackets to keep the costs down, with the winners matching in a two-match national battle royale for all the marbles.

It’s a lovely thought. It would be like our own FA Cup, one which lacks the ancestry and pageantry of the older competition but which the larger clubs will be obliged to take more seriously and which the smaller clubs would, with fewer teams and therefore fewer tests of their mettle, have a much better chance of a glory tie against an MLS opponent or even taking the entire tournament in a stunning upset.

So now, in the time-honoured tradition of this space, I will tell you why it can never happen. At least, not in that form.

  1. Most Canadian USL PDL teams will never be able to participate in the Voyageurs Cup, ever. Sorry, guys. It’s true.

Those of you without a strong grounding in amateur American soccer leagues may need a bit of an explanation. The USL Premier Development League had its genesis as a summer league for American college players and those looking to catch on in the NCAA ranks. Ages are restricted and most teams operate on a strictly amateur basis. Even non-collegiate players go officially unpaid, as a semi-professional team would compromise the NCAA eligibility of its entire roster. The Victoria Highlanders and the Abbotsford Mariners, in Western Canada, operate along these lines, although for obvious reasons they look to CIS for their talent base as well.

There is nothing inherently prohibiting amateurs from playing in the Voyageurs Cup or even the CONCACAF Champions League, although the powers-that-be might frown on it (even the worst Champions League representatives, from the like of El Salvador and Haiti, tend to officially be fully professional). But there are obvious factors preventing collegiate players from participating in the CONCACAF Champions League: they’re in school!

Remember, this isn’t college throwball. 95% of a USL PDL team’s roster will never get paid a thin dime to play professional soccer. They’re going to school to earn an education while soccer is an entertaining and, if they’re very good indeed, potentially lucrative diversion. The CONCACAF Champions League group stages begin in August and end in October, flying its participants across Central America and the Caribbean. Even for professional teams, the schedule can be difficult. Those playing semi-professionally and with full-time jobs can probably get time off from understanding employers – the employers must be understanding for them to get semi-professional rides to begin with! But even if the Canadian Soccer Association stepped in and found a way to finance these expensive trips, what chance would full-time students have? Missing classes, trying to practice and stay in game shape with only friendlies (for their PDL seasons are long over), skipping NCAA and CIS practices or games, the real stars holding off on potential professional commitments that would ruin their eligibility for an amateur side, all so they can get waxed in Trinidad and Tobago?

Is it unlikely that a USL PDL team would qualify for the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League? Of course, but stranger things have happened. Besides, the same problem applies to a lesser extent in the Voyageurs Cup itself. A tournament long enough to include amateur clubs would have to begin earlier, and even the current incarnation gets started in late April, weeks before the PDL season. A full tournament risks obliging PDL teams to finalize their rosters and begin play during the school year, which would be difficult at best and put the amateurs at a heavy competitive disadvantage.

This doesn’t apply to the academy sides, like the Whitecaps Residency team, which operate along professional lines. But are we really expanding this thing for the sake of the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency?

  1. The big clubs would never go for it.

Hi, Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer! This Voyageurs Cup thing is going pretty well, isn’t it? You’re taking on rivals in Toronto and Montreal, and a bunch of leatherlunged prairie boys from Edmonton are pissing your fans off by talking about bringing down the big MLS team. Attendance is pretty good for weekday games, it doesn’t take up too much of the schedule, and maybe you get to win and go thump some Mexicans.

Well, we’re going to change things up a bit. Instead of playing Toronto and Montreal, you’re taking on Gorge FC and the Fraser Valley Action. They’re really excited about maybe bringing down the MLS stars – I’d expect to see a couple away fans at BC Place for that one! And if you beat them, then you get that exciting home date with the hated Toronto and Montreal teams. Well, one of them, anyway. Also, the tournament’s a month longer now.

So, what do you think?

  1. The travel is still too damned expensive.

This is much more of a problem out west than it would be in the east. In the east, the travel would just mean that Atlantic Canadian and rural clubs could never participate and I doubt that’s going to break your heart. But out west, there are a few blocks of clubs spaced apart by gigantic wildernesses full of nothing.

A PCSL or VMSL team would never have a problem heading to play the Whitecaps, but flying to Edmonton might cost more than their travel budget for the rest of the season. Similarly, that amateur team in Calgary would probably be able to take a bus ride to Edmonton easily enough, but when a time comes to travel to the Kamloops Excel… well, you have to do that twice in a round robin and the cost might add up awful quick. And if one of them somehow won that pool and had to fly to Stade Saputo, well, hell.

Don’t count on the Canadian Soccer Association to subsidize it every year.  They’re the Canadian Soccer Association.

So, you smartass, what would you do?

First off, I’d give up on amateur USL PDL teams. A few non-affiliated USL PDL teams in the United States are starting to go semi-professional, and if any of our guys ever go that route they’d be welcome. I’d also let in the Whitecaps Residency and Prospects, the prospective Edmonton academy team, TFC Academy, and the Impact reserves with fairly strict cap-tying rules to prevent clubs from fielding overly strong secondary clubs or even weakening the little club too much mid-Cup.

Realistically, the qualification process for 2012 might have to begin in 2011, letting the amateurs and the semi-professionals duke it out amongst themselves. That would give them plenty of time to have a fair competition arranged on a regional basis so it wouldn’t be a financial hardship. It’ll also give a team plenty of notice that they’ll be required to travel and even where they’ll have to travel to: Milltown FC will know well in advance who also qualified and the funds they’ll have to raise, and if they can’t do it they’ll be able to gracefully bow out in favour of the next-placed team. There’ll be roster turnover between the team that qualifies and the team that plays, but that’s life.

The amateur and semi-professional teams could even have a little cup amongst themselves to serve as the qualifier, to lend a little prestige. Why not? What’s a nice trophy cost, $200? The CSA can make that happen.

Then your 2012 teams duke it out. The fully professional teams in MLS and the NASL get an automatic entry, of course. The minnows have known what they’re up against for some time and will play all their games for the Voyageurs Cup in-season, giving them the best realistic competitive chance.  They’ll probably lose, of course. The gulf between division two and division three in Canada is awfully large, but upsets have been made over larger. And if they achieve it, the Voyageurs Cup neutral site final would come just in time to be a perfect crown to their season.

If the minnow gets really lucky and wins the whole show, well, fantastic. These guys can hopefully book more time off work for the Champions League matches. There are mid-sized stadia that would probably meet CONCACAF standards – Lamport in Toronto, Swangard in Vancouver, City Centre in Victoria. At that once-in-a-lifetime stage, the Canadian Soccer Association could probably use some Aeroplan miles to get these guys to and from the games. CSL (well, CPSL) teams have played in CONCACAF before, after all, although the championship was less serious in those days.

For those who are a little too curious about how this would work, I rigged up a hypothetical schedule for qualification in 2011 and a Cup in 2012 (also showing qualification for the 2013 Cup – it gets a little weird). Work was boring and I make no apologies for it, but I think that schedule-wise my proposal is workable: we can have a fair schedule without playing through the snow in most of the country and still finishing up in time for Jack Warner and his pals.

A tournament where every game is worth watching, where every fan has a vested interest, and every team will be able to play without panicking about what to do if they win. That’s the best we can hope for.

Whitecaps Open Their Season in Style

By Benjamin Massey · April 11th, 2010 · 2 comments

We really are going to miss Swangard Stadium when it’s gone.

I’ve been to my share of football stadia in my years. I watched the Edmonton Aviators and so many incarnations of the Canadian national teams at Commonwealth Stadium, the biggest, baddest building this side of the 49th parallel. It seats one googol, was until recently natural grass, and had every amenity known to man. It is easy to get to and easy to leave. The sight lines, from everywhere, are terrific.

God, I hated every second in that pit. It was one huge, characterless, concrete chasm. Swangard Stadium is something else. It’s nestled into a corner of a park, trees hanging placidly and even happily overhead, the mountains of North Vancouver lending a splendid backdrop from the south stands. Yet it is small, and out-of-the-way, and this season marks the Whitecaps’ last at that humble, glorious venue, the best soccer stadium I have ever had the privilege of gracing. Next year we set up shop at a set of steel bleachers that will be nicknamed “Empire Stadium” as if in mockery of what once was, and the year after it’s fake grass in a fake concrete bunker of a building probably filled with fake fans. Yet another government-owned multiplex to suck away our souls.

Luckily, the Whitecaps seem determined to send the old home off in style. Teitur Thordarson, Colin Miller, and a few other Whitecaps staffers visited us Southsiders as we enjoyed some pulled pork sandwiches and shot the breeze; the normally taciturn Thordarson seemed in good spirits, making a little speech, thanking us for our support, giving us the (correct!) Whitecaps starting lineup, and mentioning potentially trialling an experienced MLS-capable striker for the next transfer window which immediately had me leaping back on the Ali Gerba bandwagon. But, perhaps more tellingly, he and his staff declined a pulled pork sandwich.

What an infantile thing for me to make a point of, but bear with me. You see, Thordarson explained, they were minding their diet. Since a five-week Christmas break, the Whitecaps had been training constantly, seven days a week. He didn’t come right out and say that he was exasperated with the team’s conditioning last season, but it was certainly implicit. What he did say was that he was much happier with affairs this year: maybe it wouldn’t make a difference in the first game, the Icelandic skipper explained, but as the season wore on we’d see the advantage it gave us.

Well, Teitur was wrong on one account and one account only. It made a hell of a difference in the first game.

The Whitecaps started slow, even timidly. The opponent was the NSC Minnesota Stars, playing their first game in franchise history (our newest song is older than you!, sang the Southside) and expected to go down in a ruinous wreck. Certainly, Vancouver’s skill told on balance, but the game got off on the wrong foot. There were sloppy plays here, excessive conservatism there, and too much aggression in other spots. We soaked up yellow cards like water. The first half dragged. The Whitecaps had a golden chance off the head of central defender Greg Janicki but it was at our own expense: Janicki kissed a particularly ill-advised clearing header off our own goalpost and the ball was only cleared after a proper Chinese fire drill.

It would be uncouth and against all footballing protocol to say this, but the one highlight came at the expense of Stars goalkeeper Louis Crayton – a seemingly nothing collision with Dever Orgill in stoppage time sent him down in a heap. I thought it was a dive or some time-wasting, and certainly Crayton rolled around like hell on the pitch. They got the stretcher and everything, and lifted him to the sidelines, and holy shit is that Joe Warren?

It was! Joe Warren! You remember Joe Warren, the longest-serving member and oft-times starter of the late Minnesota Thunder, he who retired back in 2006? That Joe Warren! I saw Joe Warren back in the Aviators days! It was like having an old friend over! I could not have been more delighted to see him, not least because he retired back in 2006.  If the Whitecaps could actually put a scoring chance together (for the only thing they ever sent hurdling at Crayton was Dever Orgill), we might just win this thing!

In truth, Warren wasn’t bad. He handled the ball like a hand grenade, like you’d expect. But for a man his age the athleticism was still there; his reflexes were every bit as good as they’d been in his prime and he made a terrific save off of a Whitecaps striker (I believe Marlon James) that would rival anything on Jay Nolly’s highlight reel. But the Whitecaps seemed as excited to see an old friend as I was, and from the second half kickoff onward it was one-way traffic.

This is what I mean by conditioning. It had been pretty warm in the sun most of the day, but now the sun was dropping behind the trees and conditions at Swangard were getting chilly in a hurry. The Whitecaps, even when off their game, played a high-tempo style that could leave a few USSF-2 teams gasping for air. Slowly, the Whitecaps ground the Stars into the grass. It was gradual, but we started winning more and more of the ball battles. Even the fantastically sloth-like pace of Marlon James was giving the Stars fits. They resorted to the mistakes the Whitecaps made in the first half, fouling and giving too much up. It was only a matter of time, and an ugly foul on Anzu Toure at the edge of the box gave us our chance.

Martin Nash struck the ball perfectly. Luca Bellisomo (career Whitecaps goals to this point: one) was on the end of it. Luca Bellisomo is 6’2″ but stick thin; nobody’s idea of an aerial man. But he was uncontested on this one, getting his head to the ball with ease. Joe Warren couldn’t leap that far. 1-0 Whitecaps and for all intents and purposes it was over. When Nizar Khalfan put the ball on Marlon James’s foot fifteen minutes later, that was just salt in the wound. The Stars never really threatened once, aside from one random chance on the break that the exhausted Minnesota striker clipped wide.

And now, more of what I mean when I talk about conditioning. The game ended in triumph, of course, and we Southsiders cheered and sang our guts out before getting into our post-game routines. Some left, some helped tear things down. A few stuck around and called to the players, hoping for a handshake or a few quick words (I have never seen or heard of a professional organization more obliging with fan contact than the Vancouver Whitecaps). Normally, at least a cluster of Whitecaps would head to the south stands, give a few “hey thanks for the support”s, endure our congratulations and hopes for more playing time with good grace, and then go back to their own business.

Not today. Instead, the Vancouver Whitecaps, led by Thordarson and unfortified by pulled pork sandwiches, went for a jog. Cooling down, taking care of themselves. All business.

I think I like that.

On the nü-NASL Expansion Scheme

By Benjamin Massey · March 16th, 2010 · No comments

On Monday, Ben Rycroft of Metro reported that the new North American Soccer League was looking to aggressively expand into Canada with a total of six as-yet-unannounced Canadian franchises on the burner.

This is, obviously, fantastic news. More professional soccer in Canada is a good thing in almost category. If we had ten professional franchises, regardless of whether they were spread between MLS and the NASL or conglomerated into an all-Canadian league (the half-secret dream of an awful lot of Canadian football fanatics), whether they all followed the Whitecaps model of developing their own talent or whether they relied on the USL PDL, CSL, PCSL, NCAA, and CIS, whether they brought in high-priced talent from abroad or cheap locals, whether they won or whether they lost – so long as they were stable, each and every team would be a gigantic step. It would be that much more soccer on television and in the sports pages, one more opportunity for an improbable victory or an agonizing defeat to show up on TSN, a few thousand more screaming fanatics banging drums and singing songs and making merry, and a couple dozen more players with the chance to improve as professionals on home soil. It would be terrific.

But it’s also a bit pie in the sky.

Rycroft’s column mentions six markets: Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary, Quebec City, Winnipeg, and Victoria. Devotees of the Maple Leaf Forever will remember my tragically aborted series on USL-1 expansion in Canada covering Winnipeg and Victoria (as well as Halifax) last autumn. I was positive on Winnipeg and negative on Victoria. Hamilton and Ottawa, according to Rycroft, are the most advanced bids, which is no surprise: Ottawa 67’s owner Jeff Hunt all but had a USL-1 expansion franchise giftwrapped for his enjoyment last year, and Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young is already heavily involved with the NASL while investing in a renovated Ivor Wynne Stadium that will have only one major tenant. Those should be tap-ins. No problem.

But when Rycroft says that the other four bids are “less developed”, it’s hard to imagine a way in which they’re developed at all. With the exception of Winnipeg, none of the four cities has an available field anywhere near USL-1 quality. Victoria’s ironically named City Centre Stadium seats 2,000 and plays on a plastic pitch. Unless a Calgary team wants to go way overboard and share McMahon Stadium (plastic, capacity 35,650) with the CFL Stampeders and a legion of smaller teams,  there is literally nothing whatsoever in the city or its environs above the municipal field level. Quebec City is infamous for its lack of a decent outdoor field: the only option would be to share the outdoor PEPS stadium (plastic, capacity 12,000-ish) with the Université Laval and its packed schedule for university and community soccer, as well as one of the spiritual homes of Canadian university gridiron, throughout the summer.

You could get a decent field in Winnipeg, no problem. Quebec City, well, if you were willing to make some compromises with the university, you could probably arrange it. Calgary, you would have to bankrupt yourself playing in a hugely inappropriate facility. Victoria, no way.

This is assuming that the ownership of these expansion teams wouldn’t want to spend $15 million-ish to build their own outdoor stadia. Since there’s no trace of who the interested owners might be, I think this is a safe assumption.

So when the NASL says they want to aggressively expand through Canada, I am of course excited. But until I see ownership and hear more than “oh, we’re planning on it”, I’ll accord those rumours the same amount of hope I give to that long-awaited CSL Western Division.

A Brief Note on the Vancouver – Edmonton Dilemma

By Benjamin Massey · February 9th, 2010 · No comments

You know those movies where a happily married husband’s plane crashes somewhere over the ocean? And the guy never turns up and the wife grieves and her heart breaks. But eventually she gets on with things, puts the past behind her, marries another man, forges a new life. And then the first husband shows up at her door having been rescued from a desert island, only to find his wife in the arms of another man, and that wife needs to choose between the two loves of her life?

That’s how I feel right now with the Edmonton Drillers and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Return of the Edmonton Drillers Part Two: The Present

By Benjamin Massey · December 16th, 2009 · 3 comments

As most of my loyal readers will know, I grew up near Edmonton, Alberta. While I grew up there I was a great hockey fan, and in particular a great fan of my home-town team, the St. Albert Saints. Playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Saints came low on the totem pole but were one of the most biggest fish in their small pond; not quite the Manchester United of the AJHL but certainly the Tottenham Hotspur. They won some provincial titles in my day and did pretty well for themselves. Then, the year before I moved to Victoria, greedy ownership and a short-sighted city council combined to move the Saints to nearby Spruce Grove. I moved out and transferred my allegiance to the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies.

Unfortunately, I still maintained affection for the transplanted Saints. I was that most diabolical of creatures: the sports bigamist. Last year, Victoria played host to the Canadian tier II junior hockey championship, the Royal Bank Cup. Teams from across Canada were present, including the Grizzlies. And the Spruce Grove Saints, who had languished in mid-table oblivion for years, picked that season to go on a tear and establish themselves as the best team in Alberta. For most of the winter, it seemed possible – nay, likely! – that my new love and my old love would play each other in the national title tournament.

Agony! Visions of going to a hockey rink and feeling a constant pit of misery in the bottom of my stomach as the great team of my formative years and the nearly-as-great team of my young adulthood waged hockey war kept me up nights. Who would I cheer for? Who could I cheer for? The Saints were there first, but, then, they had also switched cities. The Grizzlies were my new hometown team, but was that sufficient excuse to abandon old loyalties? I was saved only by the Saints failing in the AJHL final to those fuckers the Grande Prairie Storm, allowing me to cheer for the Grizzlies with a clear conscience.

I thought I’d learned my lesson. For years it has been a form response for me to reply to “what’s your favourite soccer team?” with “the Edmonton Aviators” even though they, strictly speaking, no longer existed. Implicit in that statement was the idea that my loyalty was to soccer in the city of Edmonton, the soccer community in which I had grown up and played every one of my competitive matches. Why would I throw myself on the mercy of the Impact or the Whitecaps or the FC? Sure, it would be fun to cheer for somebody again, but really, one must be constant and not sleep with every team in the country just because your old love stopped existing for a bit.

Then, with ideas of a team in Edmonton being relegated to the dreams of cranks like me while supporters of current teams cheered all around me, the temptation was too much. I hurled myself into the Whitecaps corner earlier this season and have lived there happily ever since, until it came out that the new NASL was resurrecting the Edmonton Drillers and Edmonton would, in all likelihood, compete with the Whitecaps for the Voyageurs Cup.

That was 500 words long but I can sum it up in two: fuck me.

When the Whitecaps and Drillers face off, I may just end up tearing my own face off. For I do believe that the MLS Whitecaps and NASL Drillers will be playing against each other, and just like in the old days of the Copa Del Rey when Real Madrid or Barcelona’s ‘B’ team got a chance to teach papa bear a lesson, I believe the Drillers will come to play. As Toronto FC could tell you, the gulf between North America’s ostensible first and second divisions isn’t all that wide. Truly, I will be torn in conflict, with an Edmonton victory over Vancouver having the potential to be either the best or the worst moment of my footballing life.

Implicit in all of this concern is my conviction that the Drillers will be a success. For once – for once – Edmonton’s soccer community is doing it the right way. The Whitecaps will provide both organizational and financial support and make sure the team is a success on the pitch. The team has experienced ownership, for once, and they’re not playing in Commonwealth Stadium, which is worth a dump truck full of karma on its own. The venue is still an open question, and unless the Whitecaps want to splash an awful lot of cash the Drillers will probably be stuck at Foote Field on the University of Alberta campus, capacity 3,500 on the larger pitch, but expandable to Swangard-esque proportions.

I’ve heard a few folks murmur about the Drillers taking advantage of TELUS Field, the baseball diamond in downtown Edmonton, capacity for baseball 10,000. In the old days of John Ducey Park, the earlier Drillers played some games there sharing space with the Trappers. But TELUS Field is used by a full-time baseball tenant, the Edmonton Capitals, which would make conversion difficult. Even better, the field has a bizarre arrangement of an artificial turf infield and a natural grass outfield. This is, supposedly, odd to play baseball on. I don’t even want to imagine playing soccer on it.

Of course, Commonwealth Stadium is available for the Big Games. So when we play in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, we’ll be loaded for bear.

(Dammit. I just said “we”, didn’t I? This is going to be even harder than I thought.)