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…)

Did the 2013 Antigua Barracuda Make History?

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

This past season, USL Pro’s Antigua Barracuda played 26 games and lost every one[1].

They deserve a bit of slack if anyone does. Antigua played every game away from home in an off-field mess that brought rumours of unpaid players. They were placed right behind the eight-ball from game one, but all the same, 0W-0D-26L is an astonishing record for all the wrong reasons. Antigua managed (if that’s the right word) a goal difference of -80 and lost some horrible games, including an 8-0 defeat to the also-now-defunct VSI Tampa Bay that saw veteran Mauricio Salles score five and consecutive 1-0 losses to a Phoenix FC team that finished with 22 points and, in any other year, might have been considered a laughingstock. No surprise Antigua has since folded, bringing an end to USL Pro’s Caribbean experiment[2].

There’s no debate whether Antigua were a failure, for they were certainly that. The real question is: did they make history? Were they the only zero-point team in the history of professional North American, or perhaps world, soccer[3]?

At the very lowest levels of the competitive game, zero-point seasons are not unusual. The venerable Rec.Sports.Soccer Statistics Foundation site gives several examples of teams that recorded zero points and negative-triple-digit goal differentials. But for paid (well, allegedly paid) professionals a mark like that is hard to reach. Outside North America a team that bad would be relegated before they could make history; the 2012 Antigua Barracuda were also dead last and 2011 last in their division. It takes a perfect storm of horror for a season like that to happen, one that would be difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world.

In North America we also see zero-point seasons at the lowest levels. Several USL PDL teams have achieved the “honour”, most recently the 2013 Fort Lauderdale Schulz Academy[4] (and special anti-points to the 2008 Palm Beach Pumas, who thanks to a four-point league penalty finished the season on -1). But with short schedules and amateurism the rule, PDL does not fit the spirit of our search.

It’s hard to find any information on similarly futile seasons in the professional ranks of world soccer, so I will primarily look at the North American game, not just for the pointless teams but for the other, truly miserable stiffs who have enlivened the professional scene since the Korean War. I limited myself to listing only those teams which finished below 15 points and recorded less than 0.5 points per league game in at least 20 games, because otherwise I’d have run out of space (to give some perspective, the infamous Edmonton Aviators are not on this list because they were too good). A team which lost fourteen out of fifteen is impressive, but with the short sample size it doesn’t belong with the true greats who did it in 24 or 28-game seasons.

As most North American fans know, the worst team in Major League Soccer history was the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny, grabbing a mere 14 points from 27 games in their final season. This truly dreadful affair is a byword for all that soccer shouldn’t be and is still a cautionary tale when MLS looks to the southeast. But the Mutiny don’t even qualify for my table: their points-per-game was fractionally above 0.5 and I’m including them for the sake of completeness. Lower levels, you will be unsurprised to learn, can do so much worse.

While the pre-war American Soccer League was first-class by any standard, it is difficult to assess for our purposes. It was exclusively an eastern league, records are scanty or incomplete, and the worst teams routinely missed games or folded mid-season. The 1923-24 Newark Skeeters, who finished on seven points (10 in modern terms) while playing 24 of 27 games[5], are probably the best candidate for our historical scrapheap, and are included to represent those bygone days. The second ASL, though the longest lived soccer league in American history, had all of the same weaknesses, shorter schedules, and a far lower calibre of play, and is not generally considered here. However, the league attempted to compete with the NASL in the 1970s, leading to longer schedules and higher-calibre play, and the 1975 Pittsburgh Miners, who went 1W-3D-16L in the ASL’s first 20-game season since the ’60s, are a worthy addition to our list.

The modern history of the North American game begins in the 1960s, when the first sustainable, national professional leagues took off in the United States. Neither the 1967 NPSL nor the United Soccer Association had any historical duds, and after its growing pains their child the North American Soccer League was fairly competitive. Basement teams maintained a certain respectability; the 1981 Dallas Tornado and 1976 St. Louis Stars were bad but not among history’s anti-greats. The worst of the bunch may have been – and I love this – the 1974 New York Cosmos, whose record of 4W-2D-14L would make 14 points in modern terms, though the NASL gave them 58 because it was the seventies. They do not strictly qualify for our table but, like Tampa Bay, are listed for completeness. The 1969 Baltimore Bays (2W-1D-13L) would also belong but for playing 16 games. Baltimore defenseman John Borodiak was a league All-Star that year. The NASL was not normal.

From the NASL’s demise in 1984 to 1988 high-level American outdoor soccer was limited to the Western Soccer Alliance and the two seasons of the (third) American Soccer League, mostly playing short seasons and only once achieving low honours, the 1989 Miami Sharks managing nine points in their stupid standings. The old American Professional Soccer League began in 1989 and returned the outdoor game to the American professional stage without really breaking any futility records. Oh, they had some dreadful teams (step forward, the 1991 Salt Lake Sting), but none that plumbed the historical depths. Their eccentric scoring system, which like the later NASL years eliminated draws and added modifiers onto point totals that make the standings about as informative as sudoku on acid, don’t help, but certainly they had nobody to rival Antigua.

North of the border, the Canadian Soccer League had a few sadsacks. Their shorter schedule kept point totals down but the 1987 North York Rockets belong with anybody and the City of Champions long history of soccer futility would have gotten on the board with the 1988 Edmonton Brickmen, but the early CSL’s two-points-to-a-win hockey-style system made them look worse than they were. For all its instability and a real divide between haves and have-nots the CSL’s bad teams never managed to truly tank like some of its southern brothers, and for that we are always thankful.

Prior to the USISL/A-League merger of 1997 we saw some dreadful sides. Both the USISL Select League and the A-League featured teams with single-digit point totals, though the low number of games disqualified the lowly Reno Rattlers and New York/New Jersey Stallions. Standings in the early ’90s were sometimes indecipherable to anyone without degrees in advanced calculus, handing out bonus points and scheduling games according to what looked an awful lot like arbitrary fiat, making figuring out the historically worst sides difficult.

Part of the question is where to rate the sub-Select divisions of the old United States Interregional Soccer League. Predecessor of today’s United Soccer Leagues, the USISL had clubs lose each of their matches including a few indoor teams and the outdoor 1994 Wichita Blue Angels, who lost each of their 17 games (and recorded sixteen points, because USISL). The USISL sometimes had over seventy teams and played at a level that could be considered between semi-professional and high amateur. It was closer to today’s NPSL than the USL A-League/First Division/Pro my generation grew up on. In my books, the USISL of that era does not rate highly enough for consideration, even had they played a sufficient number of games. I hope to hear informed input from American soccer historians.

In 1996 the USISL Select League began to challenge the A-League as a fully professional American second division and in 1997 the two leagues merged to begin the modern era of North American second division soccer[6]. More than a few of these early teams were famously poor, and the 1998 and 2000 Connecticut Wolves, ex- of the USISL, have the ignominy of being the only team to make our horror list twice.

The merger also brought our first uncontested super-horrible professional team. The 1999 Sacramento Geckos, in their first year after relocation from Albuquerque, came as close as any team can come to an imperfect season without doing it. The Geckos lost all 28 of their games that year, but one of those losses was in a shootout on August 28, the second-last game of the season, to the San Francisco Bay Seals before 162 possibly delighted fans[7]. That season the A-League, uniquely in their history, awarded the loser of the shootout a single point, and so Sacramento was spared the ignominy of perfect failure. (It’s hard to call them lucky, since in most leagues they would have been credited with a draw.) Weirdly, Sacramento managed a pretty-credible-for-the-day 1,237 fans per game, although they did not survive to play in 2000.

Two teams that year dropped below the magic 15-point mark, and the 11-point 2003 Indiana Blast brought a return of terribleness to the A-League, but for the most part the era of unbelievably uncompetitive second-division teams was past with the new century. The worst teams in the USL First Division era were the short-lived 2007 California Victory and the final 2009 season for the Cleveland City Stars (starring a young Evan Bush), both with 19 points from 28 matches. The USSF D2’s worst teams were very bad but no match for any of their predecessors, and in spite of the best efforts of the 2011 Atlanta Silverbacks the new NASL has added nobody to our list.

While the A-League was in its prime the third division was becoming fully professionalized, with the 1999 formation of the USL D3 Pro League perhaps being the seminal moment. The 1999 season saw a large number of financially uncompetitive teams self-relegate to a lower division, leaving a stronger, more professional elite that included a few surviving names: the Charlotte Eagles and Wilmington Hammerheads remain in today’s USL Pro and others in USL PDL. The 1999 season saw teams play only 18 games, though the 2-16 Eastern Shore Sharks would surely have gotten on our table in a 20-game year. 2002 brought a 20-game schedule and 2003 sees the first USL D3 Pro League nominee to our hall of anti-fame: the San Diego Gauchos, whose 3W-1D-16L season got the third division on the board. Unbelievably, after all that, San Diego survived until 2006.

In terrible team terms, 2004 was a banner year for the USL Pro Soccer League. One team finished on single digits in a 20-game season: the California Gold went 2W-5D-13L and history gives them 5 points without explaining the reasoning: presumably they took a healthy forfeit, and their “true” total of 11 points makes them an interesting, but certainly sad, case. They spent the next year in USL PDL before folding. The Northern Virginia Royals qualify fully: in 2004 Northern Virginia apparently only played 19 games, notching three wins, but in 2005 they went all-out with a record of 2W-0D-18L including three 7-0 defeats[8], bad enough for anybody. Remarkably, after such a promising run Northern Virginia survives in USL PDL, making the playoffs in 2011, and we can only wish the owners of more of these teams showed the same patience.

The USL Second Division made its last appearance on the bad list with the 2008 Real Maryland Monarchs, who may have set a record for stupidest name but not for worst record, finishing with 10 points from 20 games counting a one-point deduction.

When the Second Division merged with the First in 2011 to form the new USL Pro, the seeds were planted for another nightmare season. The Dayton Dutch Lions plunged headlong into disaster with a 12-point season in their first campaign after promoting from USL PDL. Having played only 24 games and not having the aid of bonus points for getting up on the right side of Capricorn in the third house the Lions were a cut less terrible than most of our North American nominees, and unlike most of the rest are still with us today, having clawed into the 2013 USL Pro playoffs. As this lot of total failures go Dayton is the most glorious and I can only wish them well.

So we are brought to 2013, and Antigua Barracuda. No other professional team in Canada or the United States has done so little, though perhaps no other had so little to work with.

The Worst Teams in Canada and the United States
Professional teams only, at least 20 games played, maximum of 15 points and 0.5 points per game by modern scoring, unless otherwise stated; scoring idiosyncrasies indicated in notes.

Season League Team GP W D L SOW SOL BP Pts
2001 MLS Tampa Bay Mutiny 27 4 2 21 14
1974 NASL New York Cosmos 20 4 2 14 14*
1997 USISL A-League Jacksonville Cyclones 28 4 23 1 0 13†
2000 USL A-League Cincinnati Riverhawks 28 2 3 23 2 13¶
2000 USL A-League Connecticut Wolves 28 1 8 19 1 13¶
2011 USL Pro Dayton Dutch Lions 24 2 6 16 12
2003 USL A-League Indiana Blast 28 3 2 23 11
1998 USISL A-League Connecticut Wolves 28 2 18 5 3 11†
2003 USL Pro Select San Diego Gauchos 20 3 1 16 10
2008 USL Second Division Real Maryland Monarchs 20 3 2 15 10*‡
1989 ASL Miami Sharks 20 3 17 2 2 9*†
1996 A-League Atlanta Ruckus 22 3 19 0 0 9†
1987 CSL North York Rockets 20 1 7 12 9**
1923-24 ASL Newark Skeeters 23 3 1 19 7**
2005 USL Second Division Northern Virginia Royals 20 2 0 18 6
2004 USL Pro League California Gold 20 2 5 13 5*‡
1975 ASL Pittsburgh Miners 20 1 3 16 5**
1999 USL A-League Sacramento Geckos 28 0 28 0 1 1‡
2013 USL Pro Antigua Barracuda 26 0 0 26 0

* — Old NASL point totals have nothing to do with anything; the modern equivalent is given.
† — USISL Select League/A-League rules from 1996 to 1998 settled ties with kicks from the penalty mark, the winner receiving a single point and the loser zero. In the USISL Select League these were included in the regular wins and losses (so 6 wins, 5 shootout wins = 8 points).
‡ — A-League rules in 1999 gave full points for a shootout win but one point for a shootout loss. A single bonus point was given for wins by three goals or more.
¶ — A-League rules from 2000 to 2002 gave a single bonus point for wins by three goals or more.
** — The first and second American Soccer Leagues (until the late 1970s), and from 1987 to 1991 the Canadian Soccer League, awarded two points for a win.
*† — The 1989 American Soccer League awarded three points for a regulation win, two points for a shootout win, one point for a shootout loss, and no points for a regulation loss.
*‡ — Counting United Soccer Leagues points deductions.

What can we take away from this, besides the fact that embarrassing team names are by no means an exclusively modern problem? What the Antigua Barracuda did was truly remarkable. Only one professional team over nearly a century of interrupted American soccer, without promotion/relegation and scattered across leagues with the stability of a Hollywood starlet at 4 AM, ever came close to matching Antigua for sheer putridity, and even the Sacramento Geckos couldn’t quite pull it off.

Yet let’s consider again the obstacles the Barracuda faced. Every game not just on the road but far from home. A team made up largely of domestic players from a country that’s a CONCACAF sub-minnow. Financial problems to rival anybody. And they did get a draw in the CFU Club Championship against Trinidadian power W Connection[9], which must count for something. For a team so terrible they made history, the players and staff of the 2013 Antigua Barracuda FC actually have quite a bit to be proud of.

(notes and comments…)

USL-1 Is Doomed. What Will We Do About It?

By Benjamin Massey · October 30th, 2009 · 1 comment

Make no mistake. USL-1 is going to compromise or it is going to die.

The healthy franchises in USL-1 last season were, in roughly this order, Montreal, Portland, Vancouver, Rochester, and Puerto Rico. Montreal and Vancouver are being kicked out, Portland (who is part of the rebel alliance themselves) may soon follow and are already in MLS for 2011. Rochester has gone downhill both on and off the pitch over the last two years and have just lost their greatest rival in the Impact. Puerto Rico is constantly teetering on the edge of madness, trying to make a go of things on their little island in the middle of nowhere, and if you’re relying on the Puerto Rico Islanders to keep your league up that league is already dead and you’re just waiting for it to stop moving.

The new owners of USL-1 have fired a shot across the bow of any potential investor: you exist to serve us. You get no say in league operations or we will try to crush you. Have you heard Jeff Hunt’s old excited noises about a USL-1 expansion team ever since Nu-Rock took over? Of course not, because Jeff Hunt is a businessman and he’s not in the habit of lightning a couple million dollars on fire to keep some penny-ante company happy.

So USL-1 as we know it is going to die – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but within the next couple years. Which may be what Nu-Rock was hoping for all along: the profitable parts of the United Soccer Leagues empire are the U-18 and Premier Development Leagues where the players are amateurs and the travel costs reasonable. As Canadian fans, though, this wanton self-destruction should worry us at least a little, for the USL-1 was also our best hope for B-grade markets getting high level professional football.

Yet there is an opportunity here. Sam of the Stretford End was, to my knowledge, the first to leap onto the bandwagon of a new Canadian soccer league (not to be confused – never to be confused – with the Canadian Soccer League).  But there’s a risk in being too ambitious here. Richard Whittall, a guru on the history of the Canadian game, observes that a Canadian soccer league doesn’t necessarily need to be large so long as it’s sustainable.

My goal is six teams. One division. Ideally all in the east, except for Vancouver in the short term. If a West division ends up being sustainable, fantastic. But the main objective here is to bring in successful organizations, people with money, and stadia with seats and get a league that can compete at a near USL-1 level by the summer of 2010.

My six teams would be:

  • Vancouver Whitecaps, obviously. They would also be my sole western team, for a couple reasons: first off, the Whitecaps brand and reputation would be important to lend credibility to any new league, and second because the cost and difficulty of getting a league started increases massively as travel distance does. Vancouver has the motivation, the history, and the financial wherewithal to endure flying to and from Ontario for one summer.
  • Montreal Impact, even more obviously. They can be an anchor of the league for at least two years and quite likely longer. They have an established fanbase and garbage bags full of money. They’re a lead pipe cinch to be attendance leaders and, like the Whitecaps, their reputation means that the league would instantly be credible to the soccer media. Both the Whitecaps and the Impact would be encouraged to bring in their current rosters for the same credibility reasons, even though, as will be seen, that would basically guarantee one of them the championship for at least three years.
  • Jeff Hunt’s Ottawa team. Another guy with money and a building. No history or reputation here, but Hunt was planning to spend at a USL-1 level before so he’d likely be willing to spend at an approximately-USL-1 level now. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jeff Hunt as a businessman, and certainly he has the wherewithal to see an Ottawa franchise through the growing pains. This is by far preferable to elevating the PDL Fury, who can’t draw flies and whose ownership is questionable at best.
  • Toronto FC B. This might be a tricky one. Unless they can get BMO Field, stadia might be a problem. I’m not sure Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would finance a high-level team unlikely to break even, and MLS would certainly put the kibosh on any formal reserve team deal. A proper reserve team, moreover, would not be competitive with Vancouver or Montreal. But if Toronto’s looking for a way to spend money to improve their team without nudging the salary cap, sending a team of top prospects and not-quite-MLS-calibre veterans to BMO Field for high-level competition on a B team is a good way to do it. The team could be legally distinct from the MLS entity and contracts could be signed with TFC B or MLSE itself instead of TFC proper, avoiding hassles from Don Garber and company.
  • Forest City London, our first USL PDL elevation. London played their first PDL campaign in 2009 and were a resounding success off the field. They’re a well-run organization with good ownership and a lovely 8,000-seat stadium at the University of Western Ontario, which means they’re arguably better off for facilities than Toronto FC B or the Whitecaps. The two problems are that they’d have to build their roster from scratch, maybe maintaining a couple exceptional talents such as Anthony Di Biase, and their pockets aren’t too deep, meaning that the larger teams might need to pay a fairly heavy subsidy. It would be nothing, however, compared to the hit the Whitecaps and the Impact take to maintain the likes of Miami FC in USL-1.
  • Pick ’em: somebody who’s probably going to fold, anyway. From here we’re out of the strong immediate candidates and into the realm of risky picks. The PDL Thunder Bay Chill would be attractive because of their history and organizational depth if not for their three-digit attendance. An attractively bold option would be elevating a better CSL team like the Serbian White Eagles, but this would obviously run into perils with ownership, stadia, team quality, and alienating the CSA. Finally, there’d be good ol’ expansion; Quebec City has a larger soccer community than you probably think and would probably have USL-1 already if not for the Impact’s territorial rights. Going further afield to Halifax or Winnipeg would also be possibilities that might not break the bank.

In the short term, this league would work. Except for Ottawa and our hypothetical sixth team, the infrastructure is in place for this league to start playing right now. Ottawa could get going immediately with a temporary home at Frank Clair Stadium playing around the renovations. Our sixth team would be flung into the fire a bit but if the rest of the league is in it to win it this would work. Even if Toronto and the sixth team don’t pan out, that’s four very reasonable organizations and leagues have been built with less.

Not enough for you? Well, there are a couple other bold possibilities.

  • Rochester Rhinos. Think about it. They’ve always had plenty of success but they went bankrupt in 2008 and their new owner isn’t exactly a multi-millionaire. Attendance has fluctuated wildly in recent seasons, and now they’re being asked to play in a league where their biggest rivals and best meal ticket, the Montreal Impact, have left? Not to mention another strong franchise in Vancouver and likely a few lesser lights as well? They’re near enough to the Canadian border for our purposes, and their ownership has no sentimental attachments to the United Soccer Leagues.
  • Portland Timbers. Another short-term solution but another tempting one. Portland isn’t as gung-ho towards rebellion as the Whitecaps or Impact but they’re part of the rebel ownership group making Nu-Rock’s life such a misery. With the Whitecaps gone the Timbers are left with no rivals west of the Great Lakes and they’re heading up to MLS in 2011 anyway. They may as well get the best value for their one remaining season, and another year of Cascadia Cup derbies in a competitive league might well appeal to the Timbers instead of trying to thump whatever shambles of a USL-2 organization gets dragged upward.

In the medium to long term, we’d face the problem of elevating the Whitecaps and probably the Impact to MLS. They could pull a Toronto FC and send “B” teams down, but that’s not a long-term solution to anyone and would erode the quality of play. Ideally, when Vancouver goes up they’d be replaced by another eastern team, and if the Impact moved up we’d start to creep west. The league could make do with four teams but to me six is the critical mass: few enough to breed rivalries but not so few that familiarity breeds contempt.

Over a decade or so, the league could creep west to other promising markets – Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, to name a few. The best part of this scheme is that it doesn’t require anything we already have, and once a stable core has been built it’ll be no problem adding onto that foundation.

Yes, I’m crazily optimistic. That’s because I’m a Canadian soccer fan.

Sobering Up After the USL-1 Final

By Benjamin Massey · October 19th, 2009 · No comments

Saturday was a bit of a rough day for me. I had to work the next morning, so my strategy of “getting right liquored up” was a pretty poor one in hindsight. I effed with my elderly Palm on various unsecured WiFi spots as I staggered through downtown Vancouver, writing my half-recap on this very site and sending various inappropriate Twitter messages. I even implied that Duane Rollins was an alcoholic while staggering drunkenly through Vancouver at 2:30 in the afternoon, which takes a certain sort of chutzpah.

(For the record: I made the “is it too early to switch to hard liquor?” joke at the Lions Pub immediately after the Impact scored to go up 2-0. When they later built on that lead, it was no longer a joke.)

I played some blackjack, which is probably the best drunk activity ever invented. I spend $5 on something called a smoked salmon wrap. I spent the rest of the ferry ride home regretting that expenditure and wound up sauntering through Esquimalt with a bottle of Southern Comfort clutched furtively in my hand singing an Irish lament for Randy Edwini-Bonsu.

What is wrong with me, anyway? I became an official Whitecaps Fan on June 18, 2009, a date you should recognize if only because of the Je me souviens banner waving in the Southside two Saturdays ago. When we somehow scraped and clawed our way into the playoffs and then though the playoffs, even defeating the hated Portland Timbers in one of the best two-leg matches you ever will see, I was happy, but I sure didn’t get thunderingly hammered and send ecstatic Palm-based Twitter messages saying “wooooooooo! the Timbers Army sucks cocks in hell!” Plus I am a Canada fan first and foremost. I wonder if I just like losing.

Actually, no, I don’t wonder, because that game was horseshit and Dave Gantar, the referee, is up for induction into the Benito Archundia Hall of Fame. There was an old joke back in the Aviators days about how the Montreal Impact bought their players and they bought their referees. Like all jokes that strike a little too close to home, it was never really funny so much as painful.

I’m not seriously alleging corruption; that with the Whitecaps heading to MLS in 2011 and the Impact softening their stance towards the new league ownership the league office might want to throw Saputo some love. Stade Saputo is an intimidating place to referee by USL-1 standings, and when 12,000 screaming Hondurans Montrealers are rewarding every dive with a demand for a red card, it can be easy for a non-professional referee to be influenced by it.

I was a hard-nosed, physical defender back in the days when I could sprint the length of a football pitch without collapsing, so I have my opinions on Shaun Pejic’s slide tackle to win the ball after Jay Nolly had been beaten. The defender has as much right to the ball as the attacker does. A striker does not receive magical protection simply by virtue of having temporary possession. Pejic’s slide clipped the ball neatly, sending it out of harm’s way, and only Roberto Brown’s overrunning made him hit Pejic’s legs at all. When he went down (a bit too easily, in my opinion), that was just football. Pejic had played the ball and not the man and he had hit his challenge perfectly. Gantar’s call was either ludicrous over-protectionism or swayed by the Montreal support, packed on the eastern end of the stadium: the fans were up in arms as fans will be on every seemingly borderline play.

(Having stood in those very stands, there’s no way you can see a foul in that close to the goal. Forget it. Brown just fell over and that was good enough for them.)

Was the referee just concerned about protecting strikers from physical play? Hardly. Fast forward to later in the match. The Whitecaps are down and out. Randy Edwini-Bonsu is hauling ass on the ball again. He has speed to burn but not enough moves and he’s reluctant to lay the ball off: this was one of his worse matches because he seemed determined to do it all by himself. But this time it works, and he simply outruns the Impact defenders. The last man back for the Impact takes a few steps forward to meet Edwini-Bonsu about twelve yards from the goal as Edwini-Bonsu is preparing for his shot, and drives Edwini-Bonsu to the ground. The ball did not so much as alter its path. It was a simple shoulder charge, a penalty in any rule book except, apparently, the one Dave Gantar was calling from.

This is without even getting into Shaun Pejic’s red card, which only the most blinded Montreal Ultras are even trying to defend. Or the fact that Roberto Brown was offside on Vancouver’s second goal. Or the missed throw-in calls and various hard Montreal tackles that were overlooked and blatant Montreal dives that were rewarded. Dave Gantar had a horrible, horrible game, and it went entirely in the Impact’s favour. Perhaps he was simply swayed by the crowd, although it is amazingly appropriate that the picture for his Facebook profile is a Whitecaps player protesting as Gantar sends him off.

Gantar was also responsible for the debacle of a game between the Whitecaps and the Carolina Railhawks at Swangard Stadium in August, when he called a vital game decidedly in favour of the Railhawks, including denying an obvious goal for Marlon James. These are not his only incidents. He is just not a good referee and not fit to be officiating the final of North America’s second division.

The first, often unspoken question after a football match is always “did the better team win?” What Impact fans, as well as Whitecaps fans, should be upset about is that Gantar made sure we could not know.

Women: Not Just For Ironing Shirts Anymore?

By Benjamin Massey · October 12th, 2009 · No comments

Where’s your father,
where’s your father,
where’s your father, referee?
You don’t have one,
you’re a bastard,
you’re a bastard, referee.

Perfectly above board!

Where’s your girlfriend,
where’s your girlfriend,
where’s your girlfriend, referee?
You don’t have one,
you’re a wanker,
you’re a wanker, referee.

So far, so good!

Where’s your penis,
where’s your penis…

WHOA! Stop right there!

Canadian football fandom can be remarkably schizophrenic sometimes, and a minor sideplot is doing a good job illustrating it. In a week that’s seen Toronto FC playing for its playoff lives against Antonio Ribeiro and Frank Yallop, Asmir Begovic becoming Fredo Corleone, and Montreal taking on Vancouver for all the marbles, the incomparable Two Canadian Guys and Ben Knight Talking About Soccer and the stalwart Andrew Bates of the 24th Minute have both spent time on Impact – Whitecaps referee Carol Anne Chenard, her lack of a ‘Y’ chromosome, and how much that really totally doesn’t matter at all seriously so why are we even talking about it.

I don’t often notice referees, but I tended to notice Chenard in USL-1 and Voyageurs Cup matches because (let’s face it) she has boobies. And I think she’s a fine referee; the Voyageurs Cup was dying for good refereeing and most of the good calls came courtesy Chenard. Saturday night was not her best, though; the red card against Martin Nash was well-earned and it transpired that Peter Byers’s goal was legitimate, but she seemed to struggle calling fouls consistently. This wasn’t an awfully officiated match, but it wasn’t perfect and a few tough-if-accurate calls went against the home team, which is always going to draw interest.  Bates and Knight were concerned that Chenard would be getting more sledging than usual because of her gender – Bates, a card-carrying Southsider, provides an anecdote of a few Southsiders on Saturday trying to start a chant impugning Chenard for her gender and expresses gratitude that it failed.

Now, I’m going to state the obvious so bear with me. Of course Chenard being a woman has no bearing on her competence as a referee. I think we’ve moved past the nineteenth century. No more than ten, maybe twenty percent of sports doctors still think that a woman will lapse into feminine hysterics when confronted with a tough foul in the box (forgive the expression). Knight was correct to say that on the Canadian Guys podcast, and he was also correct when he added that no sensible fan would pick their referees based on race, either. That sort of thing is reprehensible and if somebody in a league office kicks Chenard off a refereeing crew because she’s a woman, that guy should be buried under the north goal at BMO Field when they put the grass in.

What we’ve seen regarding Chenard over the last few days is once again revealing an odd contradiction in football society. Many supporters pride themselves on being anti-authoritarian and working class. When the Whitecaps and the City of Burnaby asked the Southsiders to pretty please not set flares or smoke at Swangard Stadium, the reaction on the Southsiders forum could be summed up as “you’re not the boss of me.” Half the fun of being a supporter is, to quote a shopworn line of Mr. Knight’s, “ten thousand people chanting the F word” – to say things en masse that would get you punched in the testicles if you said them to somebody’s face. So it’s always seemed peculiar to me that football and supporter’s culture draws this neat little dividing line between what is good offensive and what is bad offensive.

My problem is when fans are criticized for bellowing chants about a referee’s gender. We have no problem with stands criticizing the referee’s parentage or marital status. Giving the goalkeeper a “you fat bastard!” is practically de rigeur in Southsider culture. When you chant at somebody on the pitch for being overweight, you’re not submitting a thesis that fat people are drains on society who couldn’t call an offside correctly because they’d be distracted by the smell of hot dogs. To quote the Godfather trilogy for the second post consecutively, it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business.

I’d never see Carol Anne Chenard at a coffee shop and say “your refereeing is as bad as your parallel parking”, but, then, I’d never grab Bill Gaudette one-on-one and say “you fat bastard, Brett shagged your wife.” The problem with sexism (or racism or any other form of discrimination) in football isn’t yelling things from the stands that might hurt somebody’s feelings, it’s the guy on the 24th Minute post linked above who said that his teammates wouldn’t respect a female referee because of her gender. It’s not a guy who’s had a few beers yelling that the Algerian player is a terrorist while he’s trying to take a goal kick, it’s the guy who’s perfectly sober saying that he doesn’t want one of “them” on his team. The issue isn’t somebody saying “you like it in the ass!” to an opposing striker. The issue is a manager saying that if somebody who actually likes it in the ass is in his dressing room it’ll upset chemistry, and the ignorant players who make it true.

Carol Anne Chenard is a professional referee and a good one. That’s what matters. If she fucks up and I’m in the stands, I will yell everything I can think of at her. That’s not. If you honestly have a problem with that but are totally fine with all the other invective hurled from the stands, you should really re-evaluate things.

It's the Seven Years War All Over Again!

By Benjamin Massey · October 8th, 2009 · No comments

I’ve been holding off on writing about the USL Division One playoffs so far. At first, it was because I was lazy and busy. My real job has been pretty packed, and I recently got a fake job writing about hockey for SBNation.com, which pays very poorly but infinitely better than this blog does. Hockey may be my second-favourite sport but it, in strictly relative terms, sells.

Then the Whitecaps beat Charleston and I said “why write about it? they’re going to lose the away leg anyway.” Then they didn’t (Jay Nolly is magic), and I started to get superstitious. By the time the Whitecaps clung to their fingernails to a 3-3 draw in Portland, a game I watched with a heart-pounding combination of delight and mortal terror, not writing about the games had become a full-blown obsession. It was working so far! What if I write about the Whitecaps and Impact and they both lose? Considering my first post to this site was a screed about Santos Laguna stomping on the Impact like the Mexicans were Columbus cops,  it seemed better to avoid the subject altogether.

But now, fuck it. My Whitecaps may lose but Canada is certain to win. Vancouver vs. Montreal, west vs. east, Anglos vs. Frenchies. If we could get an argument on the merits of Toronto FC vs. the USL-1 two, we could work in a we-all-hate-Toronto angle and cover every granule of the Canadian soccer psyche. Wait! Thanks, the Voyageurs!

What am I going to do, provide cogent analysis? Jay Nolly is utterly fantastic. Matt Jordan is pretty fantastic himself. Marcus Haber, Charles Gbeke, Marlon James, and Randy Edwini-Bonsu are the best strike force in USL-1. What a shame about the midfield and defense, which is where Montreal ought to exploit Vancouver like a Downtown Eastside junkie desperate for a fix. But you knew all that already, unless you’re an MLS-only sort of “fan” in which case why have you even read this far?

Really, I owe the Impact something. They’re the reason I realized I was a Whitecaps fan in the first place, when they blew the last match of the Voyageurs Cup so shamefully and I swore using words I didn’t even realize I knew. That’s the sort of debt that can never be repaid. On the other hand, Montreal was also the home of my least favourite experience as a Canadian football fan, standing in the stands of Stade Saputo having beer tossed at me and walking back to my hotel down Rue Ste-Catherine seeing a bunch of cars with Quebec license plates flying Honduran flags while honking their horns triumphantly. Je me souviens my ass.

Playoffs in football are said to be sacrilege. Every great league in the world settles its champions by the standings, not by a contrived cup contest. Not even a Chelsea fan would argue they were champions of England last year by virtue of their FA Cup win.

But here’s what I know. Portland were USL-1 regular season champions this year by a walk. Without the playoffs, I’d be sitting at home wondering if there was some Argentinian league action to watch. Instead, seven teams still had a chance at ultimate glory. Rather than putting away their title with a win and two losses or three draws or whatever they might prefer, they were tested in a must-win situation against a blood rival and found wanting. Montreal, who were left for dead not so long ago, would never have had the chance to scrape and claw and fight their way into a final opportunity that they never deserved until those last weeks where they earned it completely.

Let us suppose that the purpose of football is not to be absolutely fair. Nobody truly loves sports because they want to see the best team win. What we want is excitement, the chance to never say “die”, the agony of losing the title you deserved making it all the sweeter when you win the title you didn’t. What we love is standing in the stands with our supporters knowing that, while Portland should win, there’s just enough doubt in those six little letters to fill our hearts with hope. Knowing that, even if we were worse on the road than Diego Maradona on a Monday morning, we still had a shot.

Look at it this way. You can’t tell me, if the Columbus Crew win the MLS Supporters Shield and face a playoff with, to pick a team that could conceivably be the last playoff seed, Toronto FC, that both sets of fans wouldn’t treat that match as the most important battle since Stalingrad.

They say Don Garber is in Europe imparting his wisdom to the European football czars. Mostly he’s supposed to be talking about sustainable wages and cost certainty and other important parts of the game. But he should take along a tape of the Timbers Army and the Southside waging a verbal war at PGE Park in a match that never could have happened anywhere in Europe, and say how is this not better?

Tradition? Tradition is what you call a ritual when there’s no good reason to keep it.

(By the way, Vancouver 2 – 1 Montreal, Montreal 2 – 0 Vancouver. The Impact are just too deep.)

USL Division One Expansion in Canada Part Three: Victoria

By Benjamin Massey · September 25th, 2009 · No comments

Well, folks, let’s get the easy one over with.

I’m a Victorian myself. Victoria is a lovely little city with a large immigrant population and a climate that seems hand-crafted to the beautiful game. Grass grows all year ’round, properly watered. Rain isn’t as much a problem as in Vancouver, in spite of the stereotypes. And the Victoria Highlanders, an expansion USL Premier Development League team which played badly and missed the playoffs, drew splendidly for the USL PDL and had an average attendance that beat several USL Division One teams.

Also, the Highlanders’ owner once owned half the grocery stores on Vancouver Island, and is so rich he could keep the Canadian football blogosphere stocked in liquor for five or six minutes. Victoria’s attracted a few top-flight staff, including former Canadian national Colin Miller (recently departed to join his family running USL PDL Abbotsford).  The organization has made noise from day one about their USL-1 aspirations as soon as the Whitecaps move up.

Splendid! May as well take deposit on season tickets now!

Not so fast, hombre.

Victoria is a lovely city for USL-1, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a lovely location. When Portland and Vancouver join MLS in 2011, the USL won’t have any first- or second-division teams west of Minnesota. Road trips, particularly for teams like Puerto Rico, would be horrifying. Travel expenses would be stratospheric. Unless USL embarks on a program of general western expansion, the USL Highlanders would have to throw cash around like snow in a blizzard just to convince the other teams to let them in.

Stadia are a problem as well. Victoria has three mid-sized outdoor facilities that can host football matches: Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria (grass, capacity 5,000), Royal Athletic Park in downtown Victoria (grass, capacity 4,247 but easily expandable), and the home of the Highlanders, the ironically named City Center Stadium way the fuck out in Langford (turf, 2,000-ish with standing room). City Center obviously won’t do without expansion, which is possible but only to a limited extent (plus, have I mentioned it’s way the fuck out in Langford?) Centennial Stadium is a dump, and not in the sense of “not enough concessions and the washrooms smell bad” but rather “if you see a memorable game you can pull your seat out of the crumbling concrete and take it home as a keepsake”.

Aside from building a new stadium, which is essentially impossible, Royal Athletic Park is the only long-term solution. 5,000 will get you started for USL-1 and it’s expandable to a tolerable capacity by putting bleachers on the north end, reaching 11,000 with temporary seats when it hosted matches for the U-20 World Cup. There isn’t enough on-site parking, but the parkades of downtown are close enough that you’re certain to find a spot if you’re willing to hike. Bus connections a block or two away are excellent.

Except, goddamn it,  Royal Athletic  Park is currently hosting a baseball team as well as the Pacific Coast Soccer League’s Victoria United. USL-1 teams have played on baseball grounds before but it’s probably everybody’s least favourite way to play football. Moreover, there’s been a considerable amount of money poured into Royal Athletic Park over the last eighteen months to make it more suitable for baseball. Pouring even more money into it to make it suitable for professional soccer probably won’t get council’s motor running.

The stadium issue is a stumbling block. It’s surmountable. The travel issue is another stumbling block. It’s also surmountable. The market can clearly handle USL-1-level soccer, drawing nearly 2,000 fans per night to watch shoddy amateurs, but two waist-high stumbling blocks may be enough to dissuade Highlanders owner Alex Campbell from trying. It’s significant that, since Portland had their bid to MLS officially accepted, there have been a lot fewer rumours about a USL-1 move coming from connected sources. Those in the Victoria soccer community who keep their ears close to the ground are more pessimistic now than they were when the Highlanders were just an ugly logo and people were wondering if five hundred paying fans would show up.

USL Division One Expansion in Canada, Part Two: Halifax

By Benjamin Massey · September 22nd, 2009 · 10 comments

Halifax.

I just blew your mind, didn’t I?

The population of metropolitan Halifax is nearly 300,000. Weather is as mild as you can get in Canada east of Vancouver, allowing use of outdoor facilities throughout the North American season. On the East Coast, it is ideally located for USL-1’s current teams and would introduce very few scheduling complications. In spite of its low population, the city has no summer sports higher than the CIS level to compete with a USL-1 team. It’s a university town with plenty of the students and young professionals who traditionally form the lifeblood of a new football team in Canada. There’s even a workable stadium in place: Huskies Stadium is artificial turf, seats 4,000 permanently and can be expanded to 11,000. Though also home to a CIS football team, the turf pitch ought to be able to handle the rigour.

The closest thing to a reason to turn down Halifax is population: 300,000 in the metropolitan area isn’t that big. Halifax would be the third-smallest city in the USL Division One if it joined, behind only Charleston, South Carolina and Bayamón, Puerto Rico. But population has historically had only a small correlation with USL-1 success. Massive, immigrant-laden Miami can’t draw flies to watch their side while Puerto Rico may be the most successful team in the league.

Yet Halifax gets no buzz for a soccer team at any level. If one talks about summer sports in Halifax one is talking about the CFL, in spite of the fact that there’s no CFL-calibre stadium in the city and little prospect of building one. Halifax’s history with the CFL and its history with high-level soccer are identical: they don’t have one. It’s peculiar, though emblematic of the state of the game in this country, that you can’t swing a dead horse without hitting an article about CFL expansion while nobody considers the possibility that 4,000 university students might be drawn into watching twenty-odd soccer games a summer.

Remember, a USL-1 team, particularly one on the east coast which doesn’t need to build a stadium, hasn’t got huge overhead. Average attendance in USL-1 is under 5,000 fans a match. Halifax is a smaller city and not a traditional football market. But there’s no reason it couldn’t become the next big success story.

USL Division 1 Expansion in Canada, Part One: Winnipeg

By Benjamin Massey · September 17th, 2009 · 3 comments

This is the first part of what I hope will be an ongoing series highlighting potential expansion markets for the USL Division One in Canada. With the Vancouver Whitecaps and probably the Montreal Impact on their way out but Ottawa likely on their way in, the time is right to build North America’s professional second tier north of the border. And with USL-1 clamouring for suitable markets to replace those being lost, we’ll never have a better opportunity.

Like so many cities in this country, Winnipeg has a checkered history of soccer success. Their only high-level team was the Winnipeg Fury of the old National Soccer League and bested the Vancouver 86ers 3-1 on aggregate to win the old Canadian Soccer League’s last championship in 1992. But the Fury folded with the CSL and Winnipeg fell out of the national soccer consciousness. Occasionally rumours surfaced of the new Canadian Soccer League being interested in the market, but the failure of the A-League in Edmonton and Calgary meant that Winnipeg looked a lot less attractive to patrons of the two higher divisions.

There have always been two gripes about Winnipeg as a soccer market. The first has been the lack of a stadium. Winnipeg has only three stadia capable of seating more than a thousand patrons: the University Stadium on the campus of the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Soccer Complex, and Canad Inns Stadium, home of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Canad Inns, besides being booked by the Bombers for most of Winnipeg’s short outdoor season, is much too large to support a USL-1 team. University Stadium has the right capacity of 5,000 but is elderly, home to university football, and the pitch and grandstand are both in poor conditions. Winnipeg Soccer Complex has a capacity of 10,000, which is asking a lot from an expansion team in USL-1, although the Fury played there.

Luckily, times are changing on that front. Winnipeg businessman David Asper is in the process of buying the Blue Bombers and building them a new stadium, and part of the deal is that Asper is also financing renovations to University Stadium. Canad Inns will be knocked down for development, but the University of Manitoba football team will play at the new Blue Bombers stadium, significantly easing the pressure on a suddenly-viable University Stadium. With a natural grass pitch, dates available, and plenty of capacity for a team starting out, not to mention easy access, University Stadium is practically the dream field for a USL-1 expansion team.

If a hypothetical USL-1 team does well, of course, the Winnipeg Soccer Centre is available. But it seems too much to hope for that an expansion second-division team in a city without a recent football history will draw about 5,000 fans a match, and playing in the university allows for easier promotion to the students which make up so much of a club’s fanbase. It seems better to aim lower to begin with, but it is exciting that Winnipeg has stadia available on both the low and high ends of the spectrum.

The second traditional objection is location. Winnipeg’s nearest potential rival in USL-1 today is Minnesota and nobody else is within bus range. Unless a Winnipeg team is accompanied by a large Canadian expansion to Edmonton, Calgary, and possibly northern American sites, it would be difficult to deal with all the travel.

This will be an obstacle. But with so many traditional powerhouses already leaving USL-1, it’s an obstacle that the United Soccer Leagues would have to deal with one way or another. If anything, having Winnipeg as a central link may make their expansion plans easier: it’s a lot more tenable for Puerto Rico to go on a road trip to Victoria if they also play Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Bismarck on their way through.

Would there be viable ownership in Winnipeg? There are men in Winnipeg with money and ambition, but nobody who’s shown interest in soccer. Until the Asper sale, even the Blue Bombers were owned by the city, and no Canadian needs a lesson on what unstable ownership did to the Winnipeg Jets. This is probably Winnipeg’s largest question  mark. But an entrepreneur able to lose money in the very short term and with an itch to become a player in the community could do a lot worse than to look for a USL-1  team, and the USL would be very wise to give it to him.

Just Because There's A Roof Doesn't Mean It Can't Rain

By Benjamin Massey · September 14th, 2009 · 3 comments

Remember all that drama on the BC Place renovations potentially being cancelled? Ah, those were good times. People were panicking, there was a thread on the Southsiders board titled “could our mls dreams be over?” that ran to five pages, there was all sorts of conjecture that the BC Liberals were going to throw the renovations into the can because if there’s anything that British Columbia politicians are known for, it’s fiscal restraint and not buying goodies for downtown Vancouver.

Adding to the ridiculous furore was that BC Place already has a roof. It’s an awful roof, essentially a balloon stretched the concrete block of the stadium, but it keeps rain off unless it bursts, which only happens once in a while. The three advantages of a new roof for the Whitecaps would be that it is retractable, it would allow them to curtain off and conceal the upper decks, turning a cavernous 60,000-seat pillbox into an intimate stadium of 28,000 seats or so, and that it probably won’t kill anybody.

In the renovation package for BC Place approved in January, the roof was pegged at $200 million of the $365 million total cost, all for a stadium that was built for $126 million 1981 dollars. The renderings of the renovated BC Place are attractive, but we’re left with the fact that if the renovations go forward British Columbia taxpayers are paying just south of $400 million to renovate a football stadium to no obvious benefit.

The renovations have little to do with the Olympics and most of them (including the roof) couldn’t possibly be ready by the opening ceremonies. And even if you’re one of the dwindling number of observers who believe that publicly-financed stadia pay for themselves by stimulating growth, it’s even harder to argue that a new roof and nicer concessions for an existing building will have any positive effect.

Best of all, this government boondoggle is being shoved down the Whitecaps’ throats. They don’t actually want the stadium: Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot has spent several years trying to build a privately-funded stadium in downtown Vancouver near the Burrard Inlet.

Unfortunately, the Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium bid has been marred by large, well-financed organizations of concerned citizens that don’t actually have any concerned citizens in them as well as Vancouver’s usual population of hippies and kooks who oppose anybody making money off of anything ever. Kerfoot’s proposed site for the stadium, pictured to the left currently houses a parking lot and a helicopter landing pad near some railway tracks, which isn’t anyone’s idea of the Spirit of Old Gastown.

For some reason, although BC Place is a taxpayer-funded scam that is home to the much more popular BC Lions as well as MLS Vancouver, the Whitecaps seem to come in for a unique amount of abuse. The newspaper of Douglas College, displaying the sort of editorial insight and keen journalistic intellect that has been associated with campus newspapers since the dawn of time, ran a satirical article saying that the Whitecaps had eleven fans and they were all drunk drivers. That’s just offensive. If I wrote a post saying that Toronto FC fans were a bunch of Johnny-come-lately types with no interest in the game beyond the south stands at BMO Field, I’m sure somebody would call me out on it.

Objections have included the idea of the Whitecaps tearing down Crab Park (which the proposal doesn’t include, specifically setting the limits to the stadium outside of the park so all the druggies from the Downtown Eastside won’t be disturbed), environmental damage (what, is the stadium being made of uranium and puppy corpses? This isn’t a steel mill.), and, in a few particularly inspired cases, the objection that since Greg Kerfoot is an investor in Vancouver’s Edgewater Casino and therefore those dastardly Whitecaps will secretly slip a casino into this stadium without anybody knowing (seriously).

It’s also said by people who actually have jobs that traffic and spectator density will be an issue. Why this isn’t an issue for the home of the Canucks (GM Place), which is within walking distance, or the million-odd people who commute into downtown every day goes unexplained. Also, nobody is nice enough to mention how having BC Place hosting the Whitecaps in a slightly different part of downtown Vancouver is suddenly much better. Possibly the same magic traffic fairies who brought us “Sure, Let’s Tear Up Granville Street To Build a Subway Line, That Won’t Inconvenience Anybody For Three Years” will take care of this.

The stadium was originally planned to be located near Vancouver’s Waterfront Station over former Canadian Pacific Railway property. The Whitecaps own this site (marked as #1 on the map to the left) but the location was determined to be impractical, causing the Whitecaps to negotiate with the Port Authority for another site directly on the water, nearby the original location but involving the reclamation of some land and the demolition of the Seabus terminal (site #2). Because of the impact on the Seabus and port traffic, negotiations have since moved to another location directly east of that site (#3). The Vancouver port authority has been the main obstacle for getting the stadium approved, but they’ve at least been negotiating (the hot rumour is a land swap between the Whitecaps and the port authority). BC Place is shown to the left as #4, for reference. The distance between the left and right edges of the map is about 1.83 kilometers.

The waterfront location has a number of advantages. Environmentalists and transit wonks should be enthusastic, as it is located almost on top of the Waterfront public transit exchange where the three Skytrain lines, the commuter West Coast Express train, and a bundle of bus routes all intersect. The second plan would have mutilated the Seabus service, but this has been mercifully corrected. The waterfront stadium would be adjacent to Crab Park, but forty-year-old Swangard Stadium is located in Burnaby’s Central Park and so far the park has not been burned down in an alcohol-fueled orgy of destruction. Moreover, unlike western Burnaby, there are a number of taverns and restaurants in Gastown that would benefit from the increased business of a waterfront stadium, and the area is accustomed to handling a large number of revelers.

Ultimately there is no reason not to let the Whitecaps build a stadium on the Vancouver waterfront. The real concerns about earlier proposals have been ironed out, and what’s left is a combination of groundless fearmongering and knee-jerk armchair fascism saying that Private Property is Bad and that we must be careful lest an addict-riddled park be marred by people actually enjoying it. The alternative is a ridiculously expensive and largely unnecessary stadium project being thrust upon an already overtaxed public that will enjoy absolutely zero return on investment.

So it’s only natural that British Columbia is so far taking the insane route.