Red Rovers

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2017 · 1 comment

Through three games, Vancouver-based expansion club TSS FC Rovers is last in the USL Premier Development League with minus two points. Daniel Davidson appeared for TSS in Calgary before the paperwork for his registration had been completed, saddling Rovers with a three-point penalty for fielding an ineligible player. Given that ill-starred debut saw the Rovers blow a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to Calgary Foothills, this was an unusually direct addition of insult to injury.

TSS lost the second game of their Calgary doubleheader and returned to Vancouver 3 under par after two holes. Fairly frightful, though with many excuses; TSS (short for Total Soccer Solutions) has risen to become one of the top private soccer academies in western Canada but this is their first season of competitive, national-level play. Their squad, all-Canadian but drawn from all over the West, had only been training together briefly before the PDL season started. Though many are alumni of the Whitecaps Residency almost none are of an age to have played together. And the Calgary Foothills, defending PDL finalists recently reinforced with former Canadian youth international Ali Musse, are no joke at all.

Even so, there’s no good way to botch paperwork or blow a 3-0 lead this side of terrorism. So when the Rovers walked through the tunnel at Swangard Stadium on Friday evening for their home opener against Eugene-based Lane United it could have been a ghastly experience. Vancouver loves winners, the big leagues, and feeling world-class. Down the Expo Line a popular Irish beat combo was playing a show for a sold-out, though not physically full, BC Place. Vancouver’s had PDL soccer before through the Vancouver Whitecaps, and crowds for those games were typically family members, girlfriends, and a couple resolute diehards even when the Whitecaps challenged for titles and produced national teamers by the handful. TSS is a big outfit but has no history in the spectator game. It could have been bad.

It was not bad. It was magnificent.

The game was entertaining, as the Rovers learned more about each other for 90 minutes, pushing a strong Lane side harder and harder, coming from 1-0 down to a 2-1 lead and control of the game, and settling for a draw only due to a bad but atypical mistake from defender Eric de Graaf. There is talent on this team: De Graaf is better than that blunder and UBC’s Zach Verhoven, a young player who was new to me, demonstrated electrifying pace and trickery down the right flank. If this team gels it’ll be capable of even more highlights than their first goal of the night, a tricky run from Verhoven leading to an even trickier finish by North Vancouverite Kristian Yli-Hietanan.

That’s not the most important thing, though. The Lower Mainland has something back which it lost years ago: high-level soccer free of nonsense. Not a monolithic corporate experience, nor a near-empty park where one is reluctant to speak lest he distract the midfield. A real game, with high quality and a spectator focus, but still intimate and downright fun.

Hundreds of fans filled Swangard Stadium for, to my memory, the best PDL crowd greater Vancouver had ever seen. Many wore TSS scarves. Even five minutes after kickoff the line for tickets was larger than the entire attendance for some PDL games. The girls scanning tickets at the entrance to the stand were almost breathless with amazement. “I really thought it would be just TSS people,” one said.

The Lane United support helped, as six fans made the seven-hour drive with drum, banner, cowbell, and songbook. Away support makes everything better. Former MLS Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit was at the game flogging stereos, and that was neat, but it was pleasant how few fans were there to gush over a celebrity.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Fans sat peaceably in the grandstand, chatting, watching the game, enjoying themselves. Others leaned on the rails and talked tactics. Kids kicked the ball around Swangard’s open spaces while the game went on. It is still the best stadium to watch soccer in the country, mountains dramatically backlit by the setting sun through a passing storm, though there are a few more condos on the skyline than I remember. The Swanguardians, TSS’s nascent supporters group, appeared in strong numbers for their first day. Chris Corrigan, one of the ringleaders, had memorized a voluminous songbook based largely off old Tragically Hip singles, the sort of thing which never works. Except that, because these were a couple dozen people there to participate rather than be tourists, it did work, brilliantly, and many of those tunes could become staples.

Anybody who remembers Swangard in the Whitecaps USL days would have recognized the configuration: main grandstand on the west side, steel bleachers to the east and the south, with those on the south safely protected by temporary fences so that the rowdies would have to move slightly out of their way if they wanted to invade the pitch.

The supporters had great respect for these health and safety arrangements. When some decided to flee for the sunny north side they took part of the fence with them. Mamadi Camara stepped up to take TSS’s second-half penalty and supporters moved the fence nearer behind the goal, cheering Camara on to success. There’d been some social drinking but the real joy was in the freedom to enjoy a soccer game, to sing and move and cheer and heckle and have some fun rather than fit into the regimented world of a 20,000-seat stadium with in-house security, a supporters group with bureaucracy and politics, and a front office fretting over PR. There weren’t that many beers about, believe me: mostly we were drunk on liberty. We go where we want, we go where we want, we’re the Swanguardians, we go where we want.

What about the non-standing-and-chanting experience, the majority of the fans there for a good game? There were food trucks, cold beers (not that the evening needed cooling off). There was a constant, knowledgeable chatter in the air. And as mentioned the game, livestreamed on YouTube for the out-of-town crowd, was well worth the $10 for a ticket. Apart from the result, which was hard luck to an improving young team, the night was perfect. I walked away from Swangard feeling like a pain so old that I had forgotten about it had finally, blissfully gone. The arrival of TSS FC Rovers is the best thing to happen to Vancouver soccer in a long time.

Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions

By Benjamin Massey · December 2nd, 2014 · 1 comment

As you know the third division of American soccer, USL Pro, has become an affiliate league to Major League Soccer. While most teams remain independent, starting in 2014 USL Pro began admitting MLS reserve teams, and this system will massively expand for 2015 with several reserve teams in Canada and the United States.

Nobody runs their reserve team to make money, but many Major League Soccer front offices are marketing hard and hunting paying customers. Some, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, charge higher prices for tickets than the best reserve teams in the world. They’re making progress: how many times have we heard the reserve sides of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps been called “new professional teams!!!” by the excitable, rather than an expansion of what already existed?

This model isn’t new. Several countries run reserve teams in the same league pyramid as independent clubs: Spain and Germany are the most famous but we see it all over the world, from Norway to Japan. Indeed, even in North America professional youth teams have operated alongside the independent semi-pros and amateurs of USL PDL for several years. So what does this mean for fans? Is a reserve team in a real league worth as much as a real team in the same league?

Inspired by an old Tyler Dellow post on mc79hockey.com, now removed from the Internet[1], I set out to compare the attendances of independent and reserve clubs in the same league.

Unfortunately, reliable attendance information for many such leagues, toiling in the lower divisions of non-English-speaking countries, is not readily available. Trying to compile data, I wound up with a total of ten seasons covering leagues in Spain, Germany, and the United States since 2012[2].

The distinction between “reserve team” and “non-reserve team” in North America can be slightly arbitrary: I did my best, erring towards considering teams independent. For example, Chivas USA and New York City FC did and will not appear on my lists; nor do USL Pro or USL PDL affiliates which are more like parents/feeders than full farm clubs. In the great scheme of thing potentially controversial cases are heavily outnumbered by clearcut Bayern Munich II/Chicago Fire Premier types.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2563 2981 794 2188 275.59%

It’s not even close. At the same level, independent clubs are massively more popular than reserve teams, even considering cheaper (or free) tickets for reserve football, and this sample including the reserve sides for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

Look at Spain. The two reserve teams in the Liga Adelante in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are as huge as you can get: Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla. This is first-rate soccer. The current Real Madrid Castilla team includes three full internationals and Barcelona B has four. Both also have a handful of players who we’ll see on the senior Spanish side someday. And the attendance? Barça B had a middling year in 2012-13 but, on average, both these world-class development sides drew crowds that would shame an NASL team. (Most La Liga reserve sides, including Real Madrid Castilla this season, play in the Segunda División B, a level down, where attendance numbers are not reliably available.)

The two reserve teams in the German 3. Liga, Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II, boast big senior sides. But attendance-wise they finish behind almost everybody. In 2012-13 Stuttgart and Dortmund were second-last and last, respectively, in attendance. In 2013-14 Borussia Dortmund II improved to fifth from bottom, but still well behind 14th-place SV Wehen Wiesbaden (who they?!) while VfB Stuttgart II brought up the rear.

The largest group of reserve teams for which I had attendance data was in the German Regionalliga, made up of five regions and over 90 teams. In 2012-13 only three reserve teams (FC Bayern München II, 1. FC Köln II, and TSV 1860 München II) finished above the median in Regionalliga attendance. 15 of the 25 worst-supported Regionalliga teams, and all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Not bad when only 27 reserve teams played in the division.

It’s the same story in 2013-14. Three Regionalliga reserve teams (TSV 1860 München II, FC Bayern München II, and Hertha BSC II) again finished above the median attendance. 14 of the 25 worst-supported teams, and again all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Some of these sides drew truly atrocious crowds. 2012-13 SC Freiburg II got 164 fans a night, which would have embarrassed USL PDL.

Over in the United States, one reserve team operated in USL Pro last year: the Los Angeles Galaxy II. They did not draw flies, despite offering season tickets free with the MLS package and independent seats starting at US$72[3].

North American fans will be inspired, however, by USL PDL. In 2012 and 2013 the PDL affiliate teams actually drew better than the independent ones, and in 2014 they were darn close. This bucks the trend in Spain and Germany, and might mean that North America’s different culture and greater familiarity with minor-league teams will bring more success.

But I will respond with three words: the Portland Timbers. When it comes to reserve team popularity Portland is an exception; Portland is always an exception.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers U-23s were the third-best supported team in USL PDL. In 2013 they were third again, and in 2014 they were actually second. Portland’s U-23s regularly beat USL Pro teams in the attendance race. This is a credit to Portland fans, but it also weighs unusually heavily in our table; it takes only a few well-attended games to drag up the average number when such a small proportion of the league is reserve teams.

To demonstrate Portland’s distorting effect, let’s remove the Portland Timbers U-23s and the best-supported independent team all three years, the Des Moines Menace, from the USL PDL list and see what happens.

USL PDL Attendances 2012-14 (without Des Moines and Portland)
Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012 USL PDL USA 4 393 4 400 243 157 64.36%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 505 6 526 262 264 100.67%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 503 8 546 167 380 227.99%

Take away those maniacs in Portland and USL PDL lines up a lot more with Europe. Well-supported Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders had a USL PDL team in 2013 and 2014 and have had below-average attendance. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a PDL team (and quite a successful one) for almost a decade, and their attendance is regularly in the basement.

Note as well that USL PDL attendances are not entirely reliable. Many teams, especially badly supported ones, do not report their attendance for all games. Orlando City U-23, who draw two- or single-digit crowds, reported only one game in 2013 and none at all in 2014. The Chicago Fire Premier/U-23 miss a couple games every year. Games not reported are not included in these tables, but would lower all average numbers and disproportionately hurt affiliated teams.

Obviously nothing in this post is related to player development: the most important job of a reserve team. But those looking to reserve teams to grow soccer in Canada and the United States should look elsewhere. Fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.

(notes and comments…)

Whitecaps II to USL Pro (or: Hey, This is Going Well!)

By Benjamin Massey · July 8th, 2014 · 1 comment

Negativity is a narcotic, but glad tidings from the Vancouver Whitecaps have me kicking the habit. There is a bounce in my step, a twinkle in my eye, a bit of colour in my cheeks. Finally, something is good, for the biggest news in world soccer today is that the Vancouver Whitecaps are forming a USL Pro affiliate in New Westminster, to play out of venerable Queen’s Park Stadium[1].

Devotees of my ramblings will know I have never liked United Soccer Leagues obviating their decades-old independence to operate as a feeder league for MLS, representing the homogenization, dishonestly, anti-supporterism, and anti-Canadianism I despise in North American soccer. Based on the poor support for farm teams around the world[2] I thought it would be a disaster at the box office and the Los Angeles Galaxy II are proving me right with every game in the empty StubHub Center[3]. When you see someone considering starting a professional soccer team in Canada, prefer NASL to USL.

But there are no independent Canadian teams in USL Pro, so let the Americans worry about their own pocketbooks. An affiliate in this league is the best practical option for the Whitecaps. It would be a surprise if attendance broke 1,000 but what matter? Presumably the Whitecaps know what they’re in for financially; attendances and the Whitecaps’ own sorry crowds for PDL are public information. (One hopes the two USL Pro-specific partners in the team, Ian Gillespie and Gary Pooni, are also well-informed.) So if Vancouver, or Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact, want to take advantage of United Soccer Leagues then be my guest! Pick the bones clean, Canada; it’s high time we got something for ourselves out of this relationship.

The presence of elite sport is a fillip to New Westminster, with no serious outdoor sports and not even junior “A” hockey (though the local lacrosse scene is strong). Queen’s Park Stadium is a characterful but old and dreary facility and the upgrades planned to bring it up to professional standards are desperately needed, provided the Whitecaps are paying: the public shouldn’t be subsidizing professional sport, and the fact that nobody has mentioned the funding source for the refurbishment in this press release raises worries. I also hope, for reasons a couple paragraphs above, this Whitecaps affiliate is not preempting an independent team. And while a regional rival might provide a lever to help the Victoria Highlanders finally go professional, as a part-time Highlanders fan I always hoped to see them in the NASL. (Some full-time Highlanders fans disagree; for them this should be a day of unqualified fist-pumps and lunchtime beers.)

Some wonder why this team won’t be in the interior, perhaps the Okanagan, where a large population starved of summer sport and too distant to regularly attend Whitecaps games might be go nuts for USL Pro. But, setting aside commercial considerations, having their USL Pro team close to home means Whitecaps players can work with the first team at UBC in the morning and be at Queen’s Park for a game in the evening. The further afield you get, the more independent the market but the more difficult soccer integration becomes.

Having wasted a few hundred words, such navel-gazing soccer structure bloviations are irrelevant to your average Whitecaps supporter, who care about what’s on the field rather than behind it. This new affiliation represents, in the current climate, the best chance for the Whitecaps to get Canadians into professional soccer. USL Pro is a decent enough level and will provide a good test for young Whitecaps. No doubt the core of the roster will be MLS depth, the usual combination of NCAA-trained American scrubs, journeyman bench talent, and trialists we remember from the MLS Reserve League, but your Bryce Aldersons and Sam Adekugbes can count on big minutes. As we saw even in the Reserve League, the number of players required will ensure playing time for Canadians (and Chileans) from the Whitecaps Residency. I remind you that USL still uses the “five from seven” substitution system, so there are more chances for players off the bench than other leagues. Those bench players will be predominantly Canadian.

In fact it’s possible that a 2015 Whitecaps II team would record more Canadian minutes in a single season than the senior Whitecaps have recorded in their entire MLS history[4], at a level that isn’t senior national team stuff but will draw exposure and could point the way to better things. That’s nothing to scoff at, and that’s the reason I’m grinning now.

Many assume this spells the end to the Whitecaps’ long-time partnership with USL PDL. The Whitecaps have made no announcement either way, but USL Pro and USL PDL are not “either or” propositions, and maintaining a presence in USL PDL would fill gaps that might otherwise open even with the arrival of USL Pro.

Most obviously, not every promising U-20 player will be ready for USL Pro. It is a lower level than the NASL, and the example of Jordan Hamilton in Wilmington shows teenage Canadians can succeed there, but it is indisputably a professional league with quality veterans like Matt Delicate, Allan Russell, and Samuel Ochoa making mincemeat of the unprepared.

The Whitecaps will know this, based on the mixed experiences with affiliates Charleston: Omar Salgado played well while he was there, Andre Lewis has settled in nicely, and Mamadou Diouf has enjoyed a depth role, but Marlon Ramirez and Emmanuel Adjetey were or are out of their depth and quality young centre back Jackson Farmer was just too young to get minutes. Last year Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson played decently when healthy but struggled for minutes late in the year, to the detriment of their development. Charleston is near the bottom of the table, so we’re not talking about a formidable lineup. Even talented young players sometimes just aren’t seasoned enough for that sort of soccer, and throwing a player in out of his depth is no solution to anything. USL PDL still has a role as a valuable transitional step for those trying to graduate from dominating the USSDA U-18s to making a contribution against men.

Secondly, now that the MLS reserves will be in New Westminster, a Whitecaps PDL team could help the team keep tabs on NCAA players who have come through their system. The Whitecaps would be a richer organization if Residency graduates such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, Brody Huitema, and Alex Rowley had remained involved over the summers, turning out with the Whitecaps U-23s and perhaps staking a claim to a senior contract after their school days.As long as the Whitecaps had professionals playing PDL NCAA rules made this impossible. With these professionals out of the way the PDL team can return to its original youth development role, and that opens the door for participation from the NCAA ranks.

Thirdly, and more aspirationally, bringing in CIS players as the Whitecaps have over the past few years, as well as new NCAA faces, could pay for all parties. Ex-Whitecaps U-23 captain Gagandeep Dosanjh seemed to be carving out a decent NASL career at Edmonton until injuries intervened, Reynold Stewart got a good look at the NASL combine, and I still hope to see players like Niall Cousens, Brett Levis, and increasingly Cody Cook get an opportunity. Over in Victoria Carlo Basso is having another decent PDL season, but because he attends Simon Fraser University the Whitecaps could never have given him a look. This wouldn’t just be good for FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury, the main beneficiaries today of Canadian college talent, but potentially the Whitecaps, who now have a USL Pro team they’ll want stocked and who, hopefully, will be able to give players developed there first team places.

In the grand scheme of things a reserve team is small beer. Remember that the Whitecaps entered a team at this level for their first three MLS seasons and it didn’t matter. Three Canadians other than those affiliated to MLS teams are in USL Pro this season and the average fan could not name one, while Canadian graduates of USL Pro include almost nobody you’d be interested in. What counts is not getting Canadian players into USL Pro; what matters is getting them beyond.

Until the Whitecaps prove they have both the ability and the will to graduate Canadians to some quality league rather than burying them at intermediate levels this is an opportunity for New Westminsterites to see cheap soccer rather than meaningful change. Cynicism, alas, has its place: we’ve seen the Whitecaps take measures that should theoretically be good then fail us (investing heavily in a Residency program then favouring foreign players in the first team, or showing no commitment to ensuring Canadians play for Canada). British Columbian representation, as well, is a serious, separate concern for many fans, with the Whitecaps exerting a dominance over the provincial soccer community this new team will only increase. The Whitecaps are on a cash basis with domestically-oriented supporters: we’ve been burned too often to extend them credit.

But this omen is auspicious. The team is spending time and money on a change to their organization that should benefit Canadian talent. It won’t matter a whit if further measures aren’t taken, but that’s no reason to scoff at this hopefully meaningful move.

(notes and comments…)

That Calgary Foothills U-23 – Whitecaps Match, in Empty

By Benjamin Massey · June 8th, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I had intended to use this space to describe the Calgary Foothills U-23 match against Vancouver Whitecaps U-23, which I had flown out to see. Calgary is moving to USL PDL for the 2015 summer season with a roster that currently includes ex-Whitecap and national team goalkeeper Simon Thomas. They’re taking the on-field side seriously. Unfortunately, circumstances made this impossible.

You see, I arrived at the park with a family member in plenty of time for kickoff only to be confronted with a line running through the parking lot. Part of that was because the sign directing people to will-call or ticket sales was the wrong way around, so there was mass confusion at the gate.

Arriving at the front of the queue well after kickoff, we discovered that they were cash only, a 19th-century sort of convention which was not indicated either on the box office or the Foothills website. I was informed that there was a bank machine in the field house across the parking lot. There was not. Tracking down a facility staff member, I was told that there was a bank machine on the other end of the large field in an arena. There was not.

Returning to the box office, by this point midway through the first half, the clerk was surprised by the non-existent ATMs but there was definitely a CIBC just a fifteen-minute walk across the highway. And I believed him, too! I just wasn’t arsed anymore, even to watch for free from outside the fence like many people.

(Of course, since the box office had run out of change and were bawling down the customer lineup for spare small bills when we arrived at the front, having a couple twenties might not have availed anyway.)

Anyway, that’s why I decided not to pay $15 per person for a U-23 exhibition game. Obviously Foothills has plenty to work with. The crowd was great, given the prices. If even half those in attendance were paid tickets I anticipate real success. But the front office has work to do.

So that’s why there’s no match report. Sorry.

The Juan de Fuca Plate Finale: Rain and Ringers

By Benjamin Massey · May 23rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

While I have a moment, my brief thoughts about the upcoming Juan de Fuca Plate finale between the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and the Victoria Highlanders at UBC Thunderbird Stadium (5PM, free admission).

It is a credit to both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps how seriously they take this competition. I don’t mean on the field, where technical priorities must always come first, but off it: they hype the Plate up on their websites and Twitter feeds, they mention the competition with an awareness of its history, they give the impression that they gladly support this fan-created endeavour in the spirit it’s intended. This year’s two-leg format means that, for the first time, a draw is a practical possibility: after an approach from supporters the Whitecaps and Highlanders have apparently decided to settle such a draw by penalty kicks[1]. It’s one of those little things that the Whitecaps and Highlanders didn’t have to do, that won’t get big headlines or impress thousands of fans, but will profoundly please a dedicated few. Both the Whitecaps and Highlanders organizations therefore deserve all the praise in the world for the Plate.

I won’t rehash my preview of both the Whitecaps U-23s and the Highlanders from earlier this month[2]. With Vancouver having played only three games, all on the road, and Victoria having played two, both at home, the season is too young to tear up the script, particularly when the games have been close to it. Victoria’s played well, though they have four points when their fans must have hoped for six, while by most accounts Vancouver has promise but is still trying to find their chemistry and their legs.

With that said both teams have big-name help on the field tonight. For the Whitecaps U-23s, attacking midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy is expected to make his first appearance in Vancouver silks[3]. Ballouchy is best-known for playing 74 USL PDL minutes with the Boulder Rapids Reserve in 2005, directing two shots, but has also enjoyed an eleven-season MLS career[4]. That limited PDL experience will have to serve Ballouchy well in his first taste of Juan de Fuca Plate competition. Significantly, his debut with two surgically-reconstructed knees will be on wet Thunderbird Stadium Polytan, which means a chance of re-injury in slick conditions and possible mental concerns on artificial turf. Certainly, if he can go at something like full speed, Ballouchy is liable to give the Victoria back line trouble, but that’s a massive “if”, and it would be stunning if he went the full 90.

Not to be outdone… okay, somewhat to be outdone… Victoria has all-time leading scorer Jordie Hughes back. Hughes won’t start this evening[5] but could still be a significant addition to an offense that has Cam Hundal, Blair Sturrock, Carlo Basso, and Riley O’Neill all looking threatening. Hughes was last year’s joint-leading scorer on the Highlanders (with current Whitecaps U-23 player Brett Levis) and the joint-leading scorer in the Juan de Fuca Plate (with another Whitecaps U-23, Niall Cousens). He’s a solid, veteran forward, the sort of player who isn’t the most remarkable either technically or athletically but can teach young defenders a thing or two every game. And the Whitecaps are liable to have quite a young back line.

Victoria’s most recent game was a 1-1 draw at home to Kitsap in which Sturrock scored and the Highlanders forced six saves out of Kitsap’s Matt Grosey[6]; not great but not bad. Meanwhile, since the Victoria loss the Whitecaps U-23s have played twice more on the road, drawing at both Portland and Kitsap, and in the latter case emerging with less credit than the Highlanders: Vancouver was out-shots-directed 11-5 and the Whitecaps got only one shot on target[7]. The much-ballyhooed Levis is still looking to break through, but he’s been shooting and against Victoria he was highly energetic. Niall Cousens scored in Kitsap but is also looking to recapture his imposing 2013 form. The leading early surprise has been Cody Cook, a first-year PDL player who has two goals and was one of the more impressive Whitecaps in Victoria.

Victoria’s been playing better soccer than Vancouver and, unless a few more MLS loanees come to keep Ballouchy company, might well out-gun Vancouver. There are two major wild-cards, though, that might help the Whitecaps.

The first is that a few Whitecaps players are due to stand up and make an impact. Ballouchy, obviously, has the quality to own this game if he’s fit. Cousens has scored but needs to generate more chances. Levis has only a single assist. Marlon Ramirez has professional experience and might well start this evening. These are all players of known quality at the USL PDL level who, in a very small number of games, haven’t done what we’d hope for. The best of them will have a big day sometime; such players always do. The question is whether they’ll have in the Juan de Fuca Plate, as both Levis and Cousens did in 2013. Levis, in particular, should have a burr up his ass against his former side, and while none of his teammates could get on the end of his service in the first leg he was a hard-running bastard with something to prove.

The second is the Highlanders schedule. Victoria needs to hop right back on the ferry after the game and be at Royal Athletic Park for a 7 PM Saturday start against the Washington Crossfire. If I may speak on the Highlanders’ behalf, I think they’d say that the Whitecaps game is bigger on paper, but they can’t run their team ragged and put on a poor show for the home fans either. The Crossfire have played a lot of mediocre seasons but they’ve picked up some players this year, including Canadian national futsaller Robbie Tice[8]. Even if it’s only unconscious, there will be a certain element of “saving ourselves for Saturday” that might cause the Whitecaps to push just a little harder than their opposition, and that could be the difference.

If the Highlanders win or draw, they will take the Juan de Fuca Plate for the first time in their history. If the Whitecaps win by a two-goal margin, or win 2-1 or 1-0, they will for the third straight year take the Plate while tying Victoria on points. A 3-2 Whitecaps victory and we should be heading to the spot. The two-leg format is a shame, in that the tournament is over in a flash, and I hope more than ever that a third British Columbia USL PDL team comes to strengthen the trophy for 2015. But it’s going to be exciting tonight.

(notes and comments…)

Juan de Fuca Plate III: Beyond Thunderbird

By Benjamin Massey · May 2nd, 2014 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

This Sunday the third Juan de Fuca Plate kicks off at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park (2:00 PM, tickets $15). As you know the Juan de Fuca Plate is an annual competition between British Columbia’s USL PDL teams, similar to the Cascadia Cup or the pre-2008 Voyageurs Cup. The Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s have taken both previous championships, both times under thrilling circumstances, and the Plate has earned a growing following on both sides of the Strait.

The game is also the opening act of the short but punchy play that is the USL PDL season, and after rave reviews for 2013 this year’s set of players have a tough act to follow. The Whitecaps U-23s had their best campaign in years. Led by a rambunctious attack that tried to win every game 4-3 (and a backline you could take a wheelchair through), they snuck into the final playoff spot in the PDL Northwest Division before going out to the Portland Timbers U-23s on penalties[1]. Victoria did even better. Boasting maybe the most well-rounded attack in the Western Conference plus a solid defense, the Highlanders under first-year coach Steve Simonson won the Northwest Division, brushed aside Portland, and beat the Ventura County Fusion (not far removed from a 1-1 draw with the senior Canadian men’s national team) in extra time. Only Canadian rivals and regular season champions Thunder Bay proved a match for Victoria in the league semi-final. A far cry from 2012, when British Columbia’s PDL teams were at best mediocre and at worst almost historically bad, leading to my writing one of the most hand-wringing articles about USL PDL in history[2].

After that neat 2013, this year sees a change of focus for the Whitecaps U-23 that should be welcomed by your average supporter. Vancouver will carry only seven CIS players on the roster, along with up to three first team loanees per game; the rest of the roster will be Residency players[3] (plus, one suspects, one or two others). While some of the previous Whitecaps CIS players were obvious talents the large majority were, frankly, no-hopers, seemingly brought in just to cheaply fill a lineup card: seven is probably plenty to give blue-chip university players a chance to shine. More importantly, the best of the U-18s can now once again play valuable minutes against grown men, as was done prior to 2012 with such success.

The best CIS player from last year’s Whitecaps U-23s, forward Niall Cousens, is back, as is popular midfielder Harry Lakhan and 2012 U-23 standout Reynold Stewart (not far removed from a crack at the NASL combine[4]). Attacking midfielder/forward Brett Levis is the biggest addition: a member of the 2013 Victoria Highlanders, Levis played magnificent soccer as a PDL rookie, finishing tied with Jordie Hughes for the team lead and joint eleventh in USL PDL with nine goals. This earned him a trial with the Whitecaps first team[5] and 36 minutes of a single Reserves match, with an assist, in Seattle on August 26; I am convinced Levis has professional promise. New addition Cody Cook out of Cranbrook joins Vancouver from a Mount Royal University program that includes former Whitecaps U-23 man Tyrin Hutchings and Thiago Silva (not that Thiago Silva), while Levis’s Saskatchewan teammate Jordan Farahani will help returning diminutive fullback Colton O’Neill bolster last year’s shakey backline. The key missing names are those of Whitecaps-affiliated NCAA players such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, and Brody Huitema. Hopefully we’ll see a few pleasant surprises, but the presense of MLS-contracted professionals will make the NCAA players unlikely to appear.

There’s talent there. I’ve been wild about Levis for a year now. Not only was he arguably Victoria’s best player in the 2013 PDL season, he led Canada West in shots and shots per game despite scoring “only” seven goals (tied for sixth in the conference). Reynold Stewart had one of the best university seasons in the country: captaining UBC to the national championship, finishing tied for fourth in Canada West scoring with Cook[6], and being named Canada West Player of the Year and CIS First-Team All-Canadian. Cousens had a relatively disappointing campaign numerically at UBC, but his performances still looked good and he lit up the national championships enough to be named tournament MVP[7]. Cousens, Stewart, Levis, and Farahani were first-team Canada West All-Stars. Lakhan was Second-Team, and Levis was also Second-Team CIS All-Canadian[8].

The team also has a new head coach, Niall Thompson. You talk about coaching instability, Thompson is the Whitecaps’ sixth PDL boss in six seasons, joining Stuart Neely, Craig Dalrymple, Richard Grootscholten, Colin Miller, and Thomas Neindorf. That said, in recent years the U-23 coaching job has seemed like a bit of a sideshow and Thompson is an admirably ambitious appointment. Best known as a former Whitecap and Canadian international (scoring twice) as well as one of the best players in the amateur ranks late in his career, Thompson comes from outside the program. His most recent success has been as head coach of the Surrey United adult men. Thompson led Surrey to the finals of the 2013 Canadian Challenge Trophy, losing a closer 3-0 game than the score suggests[9] and winning, along with a cabinet-full of team awards, BC Soccer Adult Coach of the Year honours in 2012-13[10].

Then there are the MLS players. The selection will vary from week to week. USL PDL rules allow three MLS loanees in the eighteen per game, and you can almost count on one of those loanees most weeks being goalkeeper Marco Carducci. Carducci played a bit of PDL last year and, more than any other player, was responsible for securing the Juan de Fuca Plate for Vancouver in the final game, including an absolutely heroic double save off Jordie Hughes and Blair Sturrock. His save percentage last season was a frankly obscene 0.882 in three games; it’s impossible for him to keep that up, but won’t it be fun to see him try? Other first teamers will doubtless put in appearances: based on nothing at all I expect to see a bit of Sam Adekugbe, a bit of Christian Dean, a few others. More importantly, some U-18s will try to make the step up. Kianz Froese, a top U-18 midfielder, played some PDL in 2012 and scored a goal. Marco Bustos will (probably) get his first PDL experience this season and ought to bring some playmaking flair. Aspiring professionals like Nicholas Prasad, Dario Zanatta, and Jordan Haynes will get a big opportunity on a higher stage against stronger players. With seven CIS guys plus up to three MLS loanees making ten, that’s a minimum of eight other players in the lineup every game, and it’s great for development. As the 2008 Whitecaps Residency, who advanced to the PDL final on the backs of U-18s Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage, Philippe Davies, Simon Thomas, Antonio Rago, Gagan Dosanjh, and others could attest, the kids can be pretty competitive too.

The Victoria Highlanders lineup, with their greater success and different priorities, has had less of a makeover but features some big changes. Lower Mainland fans will recognize more than one Highlanders addition. They hit NCAA D2 Simon Fraser University for three new players[11], all with PDL experience. Forward Carlo Basso bagged the winner off a corner in a scrimmage against the Whitecaps Reserves earlier this week and has scored ten goals in 1,453 minutes minutes over 29 games with the PDL Ottawa Fury in 2012 and 2013[12]. Basso also scored eight goals with Simon Fraser in NCAA D2 play last year, fourth on the team[13]. A big, classic target man, Basso’s scored goals before and could be a handful for small Northwest Division defenses. Midfielder Alex Rowley was formerly with the Whitecaps Residency, and while he didn’t get the press of flashier comrades his improving all-round game drew the right sort of attention. He played about six hundred PDL minutes with Vancouver in 2010 and 2011 without scoring, and in 2011-12 had a (cracking) goal and a couple assists in 1,682 minutes with the Whitecaps U-18s. Goalkeeper Brandon Watson was Victoria’s starting keeper in their inaugural 2010 season, playing 1,170 minutes[14] with a 0.731 save percentage and three clean sheets, and will fight the returning Elliott Mitrou for minutes between the sticks. A fourth SFU player, midfielder Tarnvir Bhandal, is a returnee from 2013 where he played 261 minutes.

Another well-known Highlanders addition is Cam Hundal[15]. The Victoria native and UVic student played the last two PDL seasons with the Whitecaps U-23s, recording eight goals and four assists in 2,045 minutes, as well as 19 minutes of MLS Reserves action on June 5, 2013 against Chivas USA and three Canada West All-Star nods with the good Vikes team. He’s an attractive wide-right midfielder and hasn’t looked out of place against the Whitecaps first-teamers at UVic. With his hometown Highlanders Hundal will be alongside several UVic teammates, which can only lead to improved performances. We can argue about whether he squares the balance for the Whitecaps poaching Levis, but either way he’s a dandy addition who’ll bring flair to what was an effective but often workman-like attack. A few ex-Highlanders have turned out for the Whitecaps U-23s over the years such as Sasa Plavsic, Michael Marousek, and now Levis, but I believe Hundal and Rowley are the first to go the other way.

More casual Canadian fans will be most interested in one-time Canadian international Emmanuel “Manny” Gomez, who joined the Highlanders midfield earlier this month[16]. Gomez has spent his entire professional career in Argentina so isn’t really a known quantity in his homeland, but came to national attention in a big way when he was named by Colin Miller to the senior national team’s January 2013 camp for friendlies against Denmark and the United States[17]. Gomez did not appear in either game but it was enough to make him, along with captain Tyler Hughes, one of two Highlanders with senior international experience (Hughes appeared for Frank Yallop at two training camps in 2004 and 2005 while with the Toronto Lynx, also without a cap[18]). While it’s hard for us unfamiliar with Argentine lower-division soccer to say what Gomez will bring, it’s reasonable to guess expectations will be high.

The Highlanders also return a strong core of playoff-hardened veterans including Riley O’Neill, former Football Leaguer Blair Sturrock, the Ravenhill brothers Andrew and Adam, Ryan Ashlee, and defender/captain Tyler Hughes. More than a few of their younger players are coming off high honours. Mitrou and Andrew Ravenhill were first-team Canada West, and forward Cam Stokes was second-team after tying, with Hundal and UBC’s Milad Mehrabi, for the lead in conference scoring[19]. Ravenhill was second-team CIS All-Canadian, continuing a solid career progression for the excellent young defender that a year ago got Ravenhill a trial with the San Jose Earthquakes[20]. They’ve also brought in a few new players about whom I am not well-informed, notably CIS First-Team All-Canadian and Cape Breton University captain Ian Greedy[21].

And of course, the team retains the pair of general manager Mark deFrias and head coach Steve Simonson which paid the Highlanders such dividends last season. Simonson wound out of the USL PDL Coach of the Year running (that went to Austin’s Paul Dalglish, which frankly was fair enough) but I think it’s fair to say everyone was thoroughly impressed during his first year as a high-level men’s coach. Last year’s Highlanders were exceptionally strong and earned their record, and while the loss of Levis is a titanic one, the additions of Gomez, Hundal, and Basso are a good shot at compensating.

Is it enough to win Victoria their first Juan de Fuca Plate? It’s hard to say. The Plate is just a two-leg series and anything can happen over 180 minutes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, will deny the Highlanders were a better team than the Whitecaps U-23s last year, but the Whitecaps won the Plate (thanks again, Marco and Niall). So a certain prediction in either direction is bloody rash. But Victoria does seem to be the stronger team, particularly in the early season when most Whitecaps U-23s will be adjusting to PDL pace but the Highlanders will already, by and large, be familiar with each other. And that matters, since the Juan de Fuca Plate ends May 23.

So yes, I have Victoria taking the plate, which is the one way to guarantee they won’t.

(notes and comments…)

That 2013 Whitecaps U-23 Review Post, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · July 29th, 2013 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

The Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 season ended last Tuesday. Making the the USL PDL playoffs for the first time since Thomas Neindorf’s famous 2008 squad by finishing third in the USL PDL Northwest Division forced them to play away to the Portland Timbers in a single-leg playoff to determine who would go to the Western Conference semi-final in Ventura County. The game was actually held at Doc Harris High School in Camas, Washington, about 20 miles drive northeast of Portland, but it still gave Portland a real home field advantage. Officially, about 500 fans were in attendance, almost all pro-Timbers.

The Whitecaps were, as usual for the end of a USL PDL season, shorthanded and brought a four-man bench down to Washington. So it wasn’t much surprise that the Timbers’ control of the game increased every minute. Regardless, Simon Thomas mostly kept the ball out of the net and, when Portland went up 1-0 in the first half, Bobby Jhutty was able to reply for Vancouver. Extra time passed with no winner and so the game was decided with kicks from the mark, whereupon Portland scored all five of their shots while Sam Adekugbe missed Vancouver’s fifth and last. That was it for the 2013 Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 season[1].

It’s been a decent year for the USL PDL in British Columbia, and I’m sure I’ll have something to say about the Victoria Highlanders when their season finally finishes (in their second ever playoff appearance the Highlanders are currently in the USL PDL final four going for the first piece of silverware in their history). But today let’s discuss the Whitecaps, both with the statistics and my eyes. USL PDL is a surprisingly rich store for underappreciated talent, college players who never had the benefit of an elite academy or were missed by the big scouts but who, regardless, have enough ability to at least be interesting. Moreover, the Whitecaps U-23 games were attended by only a hundred-odd fans at Thunderbird Stadium every week. Here’s a look at what you were missing.

Statistical note: one must always take official statistics in non-professional leagues with a grain of salt. To pick the key example from the Whitecaps U-23 season: I have it on the authority of multiple eye-witnesses that Derrick Bassi scored the Whitecaps U-23’s first goal in Victoria on May 31. The official United Soccer Leagues game sheet credits the goal to Harry Lakhan[2]. I wasn’t at the game; I choose to trust the witnesses. It’s possible they’re wrong. There are other instances of conflict, some of which I address and some I doubtless don’t know about. So take all statistics with a grain of salt. Unless noted, all statistics are regular season only[3].

Most Minutes
Name YoB GP Min G
Hundal, Cam 1992 14 1178 4
Winter, Michael 1990 13 1073 1
O’Neill, Colton 1992 13 926 1
Cousens, Niall 1991 13 920 8
Farenhorst, James 1989 12 919 0

There’s disagreement about whether or how the Whitecaps U-23s should serve as an extension of the Residency program. Prior to last season the Whitecaps had primarily staffed the PDL team with their U-18 squad, bolstered by promising overage Residency graduates, and had some success. The 2010 team was a strong contender which missed the playoffs through bad luck, the 2008 team famously got to the USL PDL final where they lost to the Thunder Bay Chill. Certainly, on the field, reinforced Residency U-18s were competitive.

But the inauguration of the Whitecaps USSDA program starting in the 2011-12 season meant that the Whitecaps began signing more CIS and NCAA division II talent for their PDL team. This was partially driven by sheer practicality: with the USSDA games demanding so much of the U-18s’ time, there was no way for them to play both the USSDA calendar and a full USL PDL schedule. But it also deprived many of the U-18s of their best chance to play against men, prove their mettle at a higher level, and develop under tough but not overwhelming circumstances. Many of these players, including some of the best ones, had come out of the Residency program, so there was continuity, but many were new. This year, we also saw that promising Whitecaps Residency products who went to NCAA division I wouldn’t play PDL: Callum Irving and Ben McKendry were in town, training with the Whitecaps, but training was all they got.

Naturally in 2013 university-age players got most of the minutes. Only 1,470 of the team’s total 13,750 regular season minutes were played by U-18s (1994-born or later). Goalkeeper Sean Melvin and winger/forward Yassin Essa accounted for almost half of those, with Essa playing 400 minutes and Melvin playing 360. Players with MLS contracts (Simon Thomas, Adam Clement, and Aminu Abdallah) played 1,953 minutes. This was higher than 2012 (1,520 minutes) but this year the minutes were concentrated among three players. In 2012 Bryce Alderson, Michael Boxall, Etienne Barbara, Caleb Clarke, Russell Teibert, Long Tan, and Greg Klazura all got some PDL time but none got more than Clarke’s 536 minutes.

In my eyes, some of the university-age players show promise and are worth giving USL PDL experience. But so far none from this year or last have gotten a professional contract anywhere in North America. 2012 Whitecap U-23 Michael Marousek landed a pre-season trial with FC Edmonton[4], Gagandeep Dosanjh was linked to Edmonton earlier this year but nothing has been heard since March[5], and 2012 goalkeeper Lucas Menz has escaped to European semi-professional soccer, first with Ebbsfleet[6] and now with VfR Wormatia Worms in the German fourth division[7]. That’s as good as it gets. None of the 2012 or 2013 PDL players have yet gotten a sniff with the first team Whitecaps. A very few have gotten Reserves time but seldom significant minutes and only when other options aren’t available, with the club as a rule preferring U-18s or no-name trialists to domestic U-23s.

One presumes the Whitecaps hope to gain something from running all these university kids at the USL PDL level. But when we see the likes of Adam Clement getting MLS contracts while James Farenhorst, playing excellently at an equivalent or higher level in 2012, doesn’t get a preseason trial, it’s worrying. There are a few players from the 2013 team, including Farenhorst, who I hope get at least interest from a professional team before the summer of 2014. Farenhorst is a 1989 player; he’s running out of time if indeed he isn’t already out. Carolina’s Paul Hamilton was 23 when he made his league debut with FC Edmonton and he’s done well but you’d be a fool to push your luck.

Leading Goalscorers
Name YoB Min G G/90
Cousens, Niall 1991 920 8 1.174
Lakhan, Harry 1991 870 5 0.517
Hundal, Cam 1992 1178 4 0.306
Jhutty, Bobby 1992 880 3 0.307
DeBoice, Spencer 1994 197 3 1.371

The offensive players are always the most obvious in a review of this nature. Niall Cousens led the Whitecaps U-23 scoring chart with eight goals and four assists; in fact, eight goals was the best by any Whitecap at the PDL level since Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s nine in 2008. That tied Cousens for 17th in the USL PDL scoring race, which isn’t as unimpressive as it sounds when we remember that the Northwest Division vied with the Great Lakes as the best defensive division in the USL PDL. Cousens was also co-team leader in assists with four, tied for 19th in the league. He showed size, some pace, great poise over the ball for this level, and while he was never one for golazos or heavy shots he had a knack for running onto passes, getting into shooting positions, and finding his teammates when those positions weren’t available.

At his age and with his experience, you’d expect Cousens to be a high-calibre PDL player. He met high expectations, and we have to be careful not to assign too much significance to his scoring prowess, particularly given how short a single USL PDL season is. Still, no complaints about his work and he’s worth keeping an eye on. Cousens is attending the University of British Columbia for 2013-14 and a CIS campaign in that strong program will give us another chance to evaluate Cousens, but he’s cleared the first hurdle.

Speaking of UBC, maybe the biggest loss to the Whitecaps U-23s was that of Gagandeep Dosanjh to injury. Dosanjh was the Whitecaps U-23 captain in 2012 and after a slow start was arguably its offensive MVP. Though he gave up the armband to Derrick Bassi for 2013, Dosanjh was set to be a key player. Yet a leg injury limited Dosanjh to only 146 minutes in the 2013 USL PDL season, where he scored a goal and an assist, both away to division champions and USL PDL title contenders Victoria.

A third UBC member rounded out the top scorers with Harry Lakhan managing five goals. Lakhan predominantly played in central midfield and his totals were padded by three goals in two games against bottomfeeders North Sound, but he certainly had the audacity to shoot from range and, when the opposing midfielders laid off Lakhan, they could be punished. Lakhan’s goal against the Sounders U-23s on June 21 was a magnificent long-range strike and one of the goals of the season, though I would not consider him a key offensive prospect and he will have to work on his all-zones play to go much further.

Leading Assistmakers
Name YoB Min A A/90
Cousens, Niall 1991 920 4 0.391
Hundal, Cam 1992 1178 4 0.306
Lakhan, Harry 1991 870 3 0.310
Marquez, Carlos 1994 126 2 1.429
Visintin, Marco 1990 496 2 0.363

One player from whom much was expected was Sasa Plavsic, ex- of the Abbotsford Mariners and Victoria Highlanders. Plavsic was entering his fifth USL PDL season, making him the most experienced player at this level on the Whitecaps, and had a career record of 13 goals and four assists in 2,335 minutes prior to this year. His 2011 and 2012 seasons, where he managed a combined 0.574 goals per 90 minutes on non-playoff Abbotsford and Victoria teams, showed some promise. However, Plavsic finished with only two goals in 2013 in 575 minutes, largely supplanted by Bobby Jhutty by mid-season, which given the stronger supporting cast in Vancouver did not quite meet expectations.

The most impressive non-Cousens attacking player was once again the University of Victoria’s Cam Hundal. Hundal tied for the team lead in assists and was third in goals playing on the wing, and there was not a cheapy in the bunch. He was probably the most talented of the Whitecaps U-23s with the ball at his feet, being both the most inclined to try and beat players one-on-one and the most able to pull it off. I never noticed great playmaking vision from Hundal, but his ability to overwhelm defenders let him open seams in the defense wide enough that it didn’t much matter. He’s another one of the players who should get a look from a team somewhere and who would certainly benefit from training at a higher level and learning how to read professional defenses. Indeed, on account of his skill, attacking ability, and youth, Hundal is the single player I’d put on an NASL roster from the Whitecaps U-23s if I had to pick one. He certainly strikes me as a stronger player in all respects except speed and sheer shot velocity than Erik Hurtado.

Bobby Jhutty won high marks for versatility and has improved leaps and bounds from the beginning of the 2012 season, where he frankly didn’t look like USL PDL material. Jhutty played every minute of the Whitecaps’ last five regular season games and went the full 120 in the playoffs, scoring Vancouver’s only playoff goal and burying his kick from the spot in the shootout. (That wasn’t Jhutty’s only shot from the mark this year: he scored a hat trick against Seattle where the third goal was a penalty he practically wrestled for the chance to take.) As a former doubter of Jhutty’s, I have to say he earned every minute he got. He’s done time at forward, in midfield, and fullback. He might be what baseball fans call a “AAAA player”: someone with a lot of virtues but who will never be good enough for the big leagues. Then again, given his improvement from 2012 to 2013 maybe patience would be a virtue.

Goalkeepers
Name YoB Min GA GAA Sv%
Thomas, Simon 1990 630 20 2.86 0.524
Melvin, Sean 1994 360 7 1.75 0.533
Carducci, Marco 1996 270 2 0.67 0.882

The Whitecaps U-23s used three goalkeepers this year. It’s even more difficult than usual to evaluate them, since they play so few minutes that one or two bad games can throw out their statistics for a whole season. The leader, Simon Thomas, played 630 minutes which in statistical terms is nothing, so I report on their numbers for the sake of completeness rather than out of conviction they’ll be useful.

Both Thomas and U-18 Sean Melvin posted poor save percentages, for the nothing it’s worth. This was Thomas’s third USL PDL season, and in his first two he posted save percentages of 0.755 and 0.739[8]. His 0.524 this year stands out in the wrong way, but unless Thomas left half his goalkeeping skill in Huddersfield we can only call it bad luck. In the games I saw Thomas was seldom spectacular but generally good. His aggression and skill in charging down the ball and cutting out crosses, in particular, stood out not only in comparison to his USL PDL competitors but the Whitecaps first team goalkeepers. While I hoped for more shot-stopping brilliance from a player of Thomas’s experience than we got, he did not fall behind.

Sean Melvin’s 0.533 save percentage was just as bad. This was Melvin’s second USL PDL season, and his first was only 270 minutes in 2011 with another disappointing 0.500 save percentage. It’s therefore harder to evaluate Melvin’s true calibre; he may have just hit the wall. Melvin was always a slightly forgotten ‘keeper between the excellent 1993-born Callum Irving and the younger duo of Nolan Wirth and Marco Carducci and never quite figured as a blue-chipper. That said, Melvin looked far better than a 0.533 as a U-18 and I think he had an unfortunate combination of inexperience and bad statistical luck. Melvin is off to NCAA Division I UNC-Wilmington for 2013-14[9] (alma mater of Whitecaps keeper Brad Knighton), so he will have ample opportunity to improve against older competition.

As for Marco Carducci, well, quite the opposite! A 1996-born keeper, Carducci was the youngest man to suit up for the Whitecaps U-23s this year and one of the best. His three matches included the best single game I saw any Whitecap play in PDL all season on June 28 when he more-or-less single-handedly won Vancouver the Juan de Fuca Plate with a magnificent goalkeeping display against Victoria, as well as the Whitecaps’ only clean sheet of the year (July 14 against Washington; four saves) and another excellent game against eventual playoff victors Portland. Those three brilliant games in just over two weeks gave Carducci a 0.882 save percentage, something so good I needed to go outside and get some air when I saw it.

If Melvin and Thomas were hobbled by bad luck, Carducci had it good. A 0.886 save percentage seems too high to be sustainable, particularly for a U-16 making his PDL debut. But boy, he looked brilliant, and given that he was up against players half a decade or more older than him Carducci deserves limitless praise regardless of how lucky he was. Last year, Nolan Wirth also played three PDL games at the same age and generally did well, but had moments where he looked in a bit over his head. Not Marco Carducci. I will say, without hesitation, that I don’t think Carducci’s save percentage would have been as good as 0.882 if he’d played a large number of games. I will also say that if he started every PDL game next year despite being a U-17, I’d be pretty damned excited. He may even be the best option available. This isn’t out of nowhere for Carducci: he was Canadian 2012 U-17 Player of the Year[10], everybody who watches the Residency play on a regular basis drools over him, and Whitecaps Residency supporters the Umbrella Academy named him 2013 U-16 Player of the Year[11].

You may have gathered from context that the Whitecaps U-23’s defense was questionable and you’d be right. The back line looked good on paper: Farenhorst was a favourite of mine last year, 2011 Residency PDL captain Derrick Bassi was returning, MLS-contract Adam Clement would play every game for which he was available, and there were a few versatile options like Lakhan, Michael Winter, former Fraser Valley Mariner Colton O’Neill, but expectations weren’t quite met. There was not enough depth to cope with the inevitable problems. Clement struggled even at the USL PDL level and was eventually released, Bassi missed most of the last third of the season, and the team found itself playing a 3-5-2 for much of the stretch drive. The Whitecaps U-23 defense was only average in the Northwest Division and was probably the single largest reason the team failed to get a home playoff game.

In the final games of the regular season Vancouver’s defensive situation was so desperate they brought in Jonathan Poli, long-time defender with the VMSL’s Columbus FC, Imperial Cup finalist, and multiple-time all-star. I can’t think of many examples of the Whitecaps pillaging the metro league for PDL talent! (I missed his appearances but by all accounts Poli handled 270 minutes well; those matches were among Vancouver’s better defensive efforts and included their only clean sheet against Washington.)

The much-touted Ethen Sampson was unavailable for most of the year, playing only 323 minutes. U-18 left back Sam Adekugbe, who would certainly have been a great help, also only got 118 minutes. This only increased the pressure on the remaining U-23 players. Indeed, although I ragged on Adam Clement’s quality earlier and will do so again, he was handicapped in many games by having to play out left where he put in a game effort but was clearly out of his comfort zone. There was just nobody else available.

There was still quality, though most came from the PDL-experienced players. After being a depth player early in the year Farenhorst wound up playing over 900 minutes and continued to look like a good bet. As one of the oldest and most experienced players on the team, getting his PDL start with the Abbotsford Mariners in 2010, you’d expect calm and quality from Farenhorst. He delivered it. I realize tall, calm, but technically unremarkable centre backs are not hard to find in North America but he remains the sort of player who should at least get a trial somewhere. (Not to belabour a point, but Farenhorst was certainly better than Clement, or other equivalent players who get MLS or NASL contracts because of perceived superiority in the NCAA system.) Colton O’Neill, another ex-Mariner and a younger, undersized fullback, was erratic but one can see the pace and élan which got him so much attention in the Fraser Valley as a U-18. I must say that Bassi, when he played, was a disappointment: not that he played badly, but he didn’t seem to have improved since 2011 and at his age that is essential. He may have been hurt by a lack of challenging competition in recent seasons.

The Whitecaps U-23s managed one of their best seasons and showed off some talent worth watching. Cam Hundal, James Farenhorst, and Niall Cousens all put their names forward again as potential future professionals. But there were also a number of missed chances, too many would-be-key players who were injured or had better things to do, and a lot of players who weren’t quite as good as they could or should have been. The season was certainly a positive, but my list of real prospects isn’t much longer than it was last year.

(notes and comments…)

Juan de Fuca Plate and More On the Line Friday

By Benjamin Massey · June 27th, 2013 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I had hoped to make the bulk of these points in episode twelve of Two Fat Bastards this week. Unfortunately, we ran into technical problems with the recording: we did the podcast but recorded it with a different program than usual and it turned out the result was about 50% static. You couldn’t even hear most of what Brenton had to say. So the podcast is off and I’m getting my Juan de Fuca Plate thoughts out in article form.

Obviously, Friday’s match between the Victoria Highlanders and the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s (Thunderbird Stadium, 7 PM) is about as big as USL PDL regular season soccer gets. It’s the finale of the Juan de Fuca Plate, for one thing. Victoria won the opening game in Vancouver 3-2, then the Whitecaps U-23s won in Victoria by the stunning score of 5-3. The result is that Vancouver has the advantage on goal differential. If Vancouver wins or draws, the Whitecaps U-23s retain the Juan de Fuca Plate. If Victoria wins, the Highlanders take the Plate for the first time. It’s as simple as could be hoped for; once again, the Juan de Fuca Plate is coming down to the last game.

PDL Northwest Standings, June 27
Pos Team GP Pts
1 Victoria 9 22
2 Portland U-23 9 20
3 Vancouver U-23 10 16
4 Seattle U-23 9 13
5 Kitsap 10 8
6 Washington 8 7
7 North Sound 9 4
Each team plays 14 games.
First place advances to Western Conference semi-final.
Second and third place play off in a single leg; winner advances to Western Conference semi-final

It also has substantial playoff implications. Victoria is first place in the USL PDL Northwest Division with 22 points in nine matches. They’re two points up on Portland and have a tough schedule: four of their last five games on the road, not a single gimme (Washington is close), and their one home game against the Timbers U-23s. First place is important. Three teams make the playoffs but the second and third-place teams play off while the first-place team proceeds directly to the Western Conference semi-final[1]. Victoria will badly want to hold off Portland and a win against Vancouver will be essential.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps are also in the playoff picture but only just. With 16 points through ten matches, the Whitecaps U-23s are three points up on the Seattle U-23s but Seattle has a game in hand[2]. Nobody below Seattle is a major threat. The good news is that Vancouver’s schedule is relatively easy. Three of their four games are at home and the road game is at North Sound which should be automatic points.

With an easier schedule we can probably count on Seattle taking at least nine points from their remaining five games and very possibly more; the Whitecaps need results. But if Vancouver manages some big wins it’s just possible they’ll reel in Portland. Victoria is probably too far ahead to catch unless they’re swept by the Timbers in their two games (and can probably print tickets to their second-ever PDL playoff appearance one way or another); Portland itself might be just doable. Apart from one game home to Washington Crossfire Portland’s schedule is not easy, and they still have to play in Vancouver. Most importantly, Portland and Victoria still need to play both their games this year. Those two will decide a great deal. But even if the Juan de Fuca Plate didn’t exist, both Victoria and Vancouver would desperately want the three points Friday.

As of this writing the Highlanders have two players in the top ten of USL PDL scoring. Veteran Jordie Hughes is tied for third with nine goals in 810 minutes. USL PDL rookie and University of Saskatchewan product Brett Levis is tied for eighth with seven goals in 792 minutes; Levis is also tied for eighth in assists with four. Hughes and Levis lead the Northwest Division in scoring and Levis is tied for second in assists with Vancouver’s Niall Cousens. Levis is young and, as I expressed hope and confidence in him back in May[3], I’m thrilled to see he’s having a remarkable first USL PDL season. Hopefully he gets attention from the professional ranks. FC Edmonton needs a domestic forward.

Vancouver is getting good offense (six goals and four assists) from Cousens, another first-year USL PDL player but one with professional experience in the Czech Republic. Harry Lakhan has six goals but doesn’t really fit the mould of a high-scoring midfielder and seems likely to come to earth. Beyond that there aren’t many big scorers. The likes of Bobby Jhutty should bag a few here and there (Jhutty is coming off a brace against Seattle) and ex-Highlander Sasa Plavsic is waiting to get off the schneide, but this team is missing Gagandeep Dosanjh.

So give Victoria the advantage in front-line scoring. Meanwhile, Vancouver is down on squad depth. First-team players will be concentrating on Vancouver’s game Saturday against DC United, and the Whitecaps U-23 lineup will have only MLS no-hopers. The Whitecaps U-18s are also likely to be unavailable, having played a Thursday afternoon USSDA playoff game in Texas. The defense will be hurt by the release earlier this week of Adam Clement; Clement was actually not a strong PDL player but he was still one of the regulars in the lineup at left back and occasionally centre back. There is little defensive depth without Clement: captain Derrick Bassi is good, James Farenhorst was terrific in 2012 and deserves more playing time than he gets, but nobody else stands out in a good way. (A good reflection of the first team, that.) Victoria’s defense isn’t sterling, but it is good. Elliot Mitrou is a reliable keeper and Kalem Scott is having another good year.

In the Whitecaps’ favour, they have scored seven of the twelve goals Victoria has conceded this year (nine games). They played Victoria very tough in the game at Thunderbird Stadium, and while I missed the Victoria leg I am told it was a USL PDL classic with both teams hammering each other like heavyweights. In both cases Vancouver acquitted themselves well. The U-23 players (as opposed to the MLS Reserves and the U-18s) also look good for Vancouver this year: Jhutty has improved over last year, Cousens is the real deal at this level, and there’s plenty of quality in players like Bassi, Hundal, Plavsic, and Farenhorst. The main weakness I’ve seen is that the Whitecaps are a bit too donut-like: they’re great on the outside but there’s a big hole in the middle.

One must hesitantly call the Highlanders favourites for Friday. They are playing excellent soccer and Vancouver will be understrength. But these are two of the USL PDL’s better teams clashing for a trophy and more. It looks like we can expect a barnburner.

(notes and comments…)

Juan De Fuca Plate Act Two, Scene One: British Columbia’s Supporters Soccer Championship

By Benjamin Massey · May 17th, 2013 · 3 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Tonight is the first game of the 2013 Juan de Fuca Plate. The Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23s will take on the Victoria Highlanders on the hallowed Polytan of Thunderbird Stadium at 7 PM in USL PDL action. A decent contingent of traveling Lake Side Buoys is expected, given that it’s a Friday evening game, and of course the Southsiders and Curva Collective are both promoting the game to their members. Both Victoria and Vancouver won their first game of the season (thanks, Kitsap Pumas!) so a competitive affair looks to be on the cards.

The Juan de Fuca Plate is a supporter-owned, held, and paid-for trophy to honour the best British Columbia semi-professional soccer team (currently defined as USL PDL). It was created last year by an alliance of Victoria Lake Side Buoys, Vancouver Southsiders, and Curva Collective, driven by Vancouver Island-based Victoria/Vancouver supporter Drew Shaw and named by prominent Lake Side Buoy Ted Godwin. 21 donors collectively raised almost $900 in a matter of weeks[1], paying for the trophy, a wooden base, a banner, and a new supporters championship in the spirit of the Cascadia Cup. There was no corporate sponsorship, no team or league support. It was all by the supporters and for the supporters, just like it should be.

Last year’s Plate was fought between Victoria, Vancouver, and the Fraser Valley Mariners; this year the Mariners are out of PDL so Victoria and Vancouver will duel over three matches. It is the hope of every fan that a third British Columbia USL PDL team arrives soon so the Plate may expand its reach. Indeed, one goal of the Plate is to raise awareness of USL PDL soccer in British Columbia and to draw support in what is a surprisingly excellent level of soccer. You hardly see a supporter who goes to a PDL game and doesn’t enjoy it. The play is fun, tickets are cheap or free, and the banter in the stands brings back memories of Swangard and the USL First Division.

The Highlanders beat Kitsap 3-0 in the very first game of the 2013 USL PDL season. Two of the goals were scored by familiar Victoria soccer faces, with pocket-sized University of Victoria Vikes standout Tommy Mallette scoring the first and Highlanders legend Jordie Hughes the last; Vikes alumnus Joel Wilson stopped a penalty kick. The other scorer was Brett Levis, a standout 20-year-old forward out of the University of Saskatchewan who may be far from the Highlanders’ usual recruitment territory in British Columbia but is off to a good start.

Levis is the sort of player who PDL ideally gives chances to: a fine CIS player, second-leading scorer in Canada West last year behind Gagandeep Dosanjh and first in shots[2] on a competitive Huskies team. Levis was 2008 Saskatchewan Youth Player of the Year[3] but has otherwise never gotten major attention and never played for a Canadian youth national team. A solid PDL campaign represents Levis’s best chance to get attention from the professional ranks, as indeed Dosanjh did when he got a trial at FC Edmonton[4] after an excellent 2012 PDL season captaining the Whitecaps. Other notable CIS recruits from outside BC include the University of Alberta’s Jermele Campbell and St. Francis Xavier’s Ryan Ashlee (though he is Victoria-born). They are, of course, loaded with Vikes and the occasional UBC name as well; that’s without mentioning returning Canadian professional Riley O’Neill or random Scottish veteran and Football League journeyman Blair Sturrock[5]. The Highlanders do it right.

No complaints about the Whitecaps U-23 team either. Some fans and parents have been unhappy that, over the past two seasons, the Whitecaps have prioritized bringing in CIS players rather than just letting the Residency boys play PDL. Certainly, the mostly-U-18 Residency teams of old were great fun and often surprisingly competitive. But in 2012 and now 2013, a collegiate-heavy team has allowed both the Whitecaps and other professional teams to get a look at some forgotten talents. Derrick Bassi, captain of the 2011 Whitecaps Residency PDL team and a trialist at Toronto FC earlier this year[6] is the highest-profile returnee. Dosanjh is back as well, although a potentially nasty leg injury last week against Kitsap might rule him out. Other big names back from 2012 are centre back James Farenhorst (in the running for team MVP last year), excellent University of Victoria winger Cam Hundal, and fullback/midfielder Bobby Jhutty. Residency players Sean Melvin, Sam Adekugbe, Spencer DeBoice, Yassin Essa, and Carlos Marquez will probably be the biggest U-18 names on the team sheet, while others will doubtless slot in from time to time. And of course the Whitecaps can play up to three of their MLS players in any given game.

There are many new additions, the two highest-profile ones both being big forwards. Niall Cousens will be starting at the University of British Columbia this year after a European professional career that included time with the Slavia Praha academy and a number of appearances on the Canadian U-20 national team. The University of Fraser Valley’s Sasa Plavsic will be familiar to Highlanders fans as he played for them last year, managing to be the team’s second-leading scorer with four goals in only 670 minutes. Both Plavsic and Cousens looked dangerous against Kitsap, although it was the old Vancouver hands that did the damage: Hundal and DeBoice scored excellent goals in quick succession, with DeBoice in particular managing a superb left-footed shot from range. Kitsap’s one goal never should have counted as the ball was dribbled out over the end-line before being crossed, but the linesman missed it. That said, the run of play was disconcertingly close, and based only on two games against the Pumas the Highlanders look like a stronger team early.

Good news for Victoria, looking to win the second Juan de Fuca Plate. The Whitecaps won the first in maybe the most exciting PDL game I’d ever attended: after the Highlanders shocked the Whitecaps U-23s at Richmond’s Minoru Park, the Whitecaps went to their spiritual home of Swangard Stadium needing only a win over the Fraser Valley Mariners to take the inaugural Plate. The Mariners had only one point and three goals in PDL play all season; the Whitecaps seemed dead certain to win. Except, incredibly, Fraser Valley gave the Whitecaps a tremendous game, even taking the lead in the second half through Justin Isidro (their first lead in two months). The Whitecaps finally struck with quick goals from Hundal and Dosanjh after eighty minutes, securing themselves the Plate on goal differential in unexpectedly classic fashion[7].

After a first season like that, no wonder teams, leagues, and media are taking an interest in the nascent Plate. The top story on the USL PDL website talks of the “opening game in battle for Juan de Fuca Plate”[8]; the article is a Whitecaps press release which talks of the Plate at what, for a press release, counts as length[9]. Typically, the Victoria Highlanders front page has nothing on the upcoming game, but their Twitter account has been promoting the Plate clash with excitement[10] and they had an article on the Plate last week[11]. Even the Victoria Times-Colonist has started mentioning the Juan de Fuca Plate[12].

If you at all can get to Thunderbird Stadium at 7 PM tonight for the game, do so. Admission is free, the soccer is quality, and you might be surprised how many of these college kids you wind up hearing from down the line in the professional ranks. Above all, every fan helps grow sub-MLS soccer in British Columbia. The Whitecaps first team draws 19,000 fans a night and nobody else regularly breaks 2,000. It’s staggering in a province as soccer-mad as ours. The Juan de Fuca Plate is one small thing trying to change that.

(notes and comments…)

Professionals vs. Amateurs: More Equal Than it Sounds

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2010 · 3 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Yes, I have now seen two FC Edmonton games this exhibition season. No, I didn’t have to board a plane to get to this one. Edmonton had announced months ago that they would be playing the Victoria Highlanders at Foote Field in Edmonton but it was only recently announced there would be a game in Victoria as well, at the still-ironically-named City Centre Park in Langford.

First, I will repeat my most frequently-voiced criticism about FC Edmonton. Three weeks ago, I paid $34 for a general admission ticket to Commonwealth Stadium when I watched Edmonton take on Portsmouth. Today, I paid $13 for an assigned seat to watch Edmonton take on Victoria. It’s true that FC Edmonton isn’t quite as expensive a booking as Pompey, but general admission for the return engagement against Victoria will start at $20 before taxes and fees. It will probably come to twice the price to watch the same matchup in Edmonton as opposed to watching it in Victoria.

In spite of the bargain price and a spectacular night in Langford, attendance in Victoria was disappointing. Though not announced, it couldn’t have been much more than one thousand. The normally-strong Lake Side Buoys supporters’ section was literally down to one guy, who rode the traditional supporters’ bus in alone and blamed the bad supporters’ turnout on a combination of the weather forecast (as late as yesterday afternoon the prediction for today was rain) and the simple fact that August is a big vacation month in Victoria.

Even before kickoff there was a surprise, as it was announced that striker Riley O’Neill, late of SV Wilhelmshaven in the German Regionalliga Nord, would be starting up front for Victoria. My astonishment at a five-time goalscorer in the German fourth division moving to a post-season trial with a USL PDL club was such that I couldn’t believe it was the same Riley O’Neill: I wound up asking around the stands and on Twitter and eventually got confirmation that yes, it’s the same guy.

Next to the ex-professional O’Neill, the biggest name in Victoria’s lineup was Jordie Hughes. I’ve seem Hughes play in person a number of times and each time I’ve come away impressed. Hughes is a 5’10” midfielder who plays bigger, runs like the wind, is the best amateur ballhander I’ve seen, was a star in the American college ranks before a leg injury, and bluntly deserves better than the USL PDL. He averages better than a goal every two games for Victoria from midfield and could certainly be a contributing player for most NASL or USL-1 teams. He’s 26 years old and not getting any younger, but his exile from the professional ranks is a mystery.

The first half was primarily an even affair. Victoria had the advantage of mostly playing an entire season together, with only a couple reserve players and newbie O’Neill rounding out a good first eleven. They were more-or-less equal with Edmonton athletically, and the dynamism of Hughes and O’Neill was effectively countered by Edmonton’s Shaun Saiko at defensive midfield and Paul Hamilton at fullback. Saiko was a former Middlesborough youth player, was predicted to be one of the team’s stars, and is living up to it, but Hamilton has to me been the surprise star of Edmonton’s lineup. Twice now, against Portsmouth and Victoria, I’ve been flabbergasted by Hamilton’s poise and off-the-ball effectiveness. Of all the Alberta metro players in Edmonton’s lineup, Hamilton is the one I’d predict to survive in the NASL.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Saiko, however, was clearly the star. Although lining up at defensive midfield he had a roving commission, playing the “destroyer” role best exemplified in the Canadian ranks by the young Julian De Guzman (and wearing Jules’s #6 into the bargain). No Victoria player could match Saiko’s pace and he mixed that with tremendous ball control, an extremely intelligent style, and a shouting, commanding presence in midfield unusual in a twenty year old. I was not struck by his tackling but then it occurred to me that Saiko was simply playing smart and athletically enough that he didn’t particularly have to tackle: he simply ran the opposing players out of options. He made the centre of the pitch a no-go zone for the Victoria attack, caused Riley O’Neill to die on the vine for want of service, started most of Edmonton’s best opportunities, and in the 38th minute scored the first and best goal of the game with a screaming effort from distance that rippled the top of the goal.

So impressed was I by Saiko’s first-half performance that, in spite of the uninspiring calibre of opposition, I was growing quite excited. Saiko had also been excellent against Portsmouth and got rave reviews for the game against Colo-Colo: maybe we really have something here. Only once did he falter, around the 27th minute, when Jordie Hughes began a run down the right flank and Saiko did not take the threat seriously enough. Saiko stuck back a bit and Hughes suddenly cut to the middle in front of him, splitting the Edmonton central defense and releasing a low shot that kissed just wide. This was the closest Hughes would come to troubling the scorekeeper, but he still had a dangerous all-round game.

Edmonton held their 1-0 lead into the half and almost immediately upon resuming play added to affairs. It wasn’t a dignified goal but it counted: Matt Lam had come on for first-half captain Chris Kody and promptly poked home a ball on a scramble in front of goal, giving Edmonton a 2-0 lead in the 48th minute.

Unfortunately, complacency began to set in. They got a few chances off the feet of Michael Cox and Milan Timotijevic but Victoria goalkeeper Brandon Watson put on a show, making more than his share of fingertip saves. Conversely, Jas Gill in goal for Edmonton (starting in lieu of Eredivisie veteran Rein Baart) inspired no confidence. He was a combination of nerves, mistimed aggression, and poor handling all night. In the second half, these problems began to come home. Jordie Hughes started a nice counter after an Edmonton chance and as Romaie Martin bore down on goal Gill came out much too far. Martin easily bypassed Gill and with the keeper out of the play had all the goal in the world at his feet. But he flubbed his shot, striking it through the box. Had Gill kept his head he would have intercepted the ball and all would have been well, but as it was he was out of position and Chris Arnett converted the accidental cross to cut Edmonton’s lead.

From that point on, play was even and tempers started to flare. Victoria right back Kevan Brown, a tall ginger drink of water, infuriated FC Edmonton all night long. He provoked Thiago Silva into a shoving match and a warning from the official as well as goading Timotijevic into a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct when the Serbian import petulantly threw the ball away on a throw-in. Brown was also conspicuously effective defensively and made Edmonton work for opportunities on the right: normally a reserve player for Victoria, Brown was regardless the most impressive of the players I’d never heard of.

The truculence came from other venues as well. After a Victoria chance was thwarted by a hard tackle from Paul Hamilton, Riley O’Neill took exception and got into a vicious if short scrap with Hamilton behind the touch line. The two exchanged words, shoves, and a little more before the referee charged in to restore order, assessing both O’Neill and Hamilton yellow cards.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Riley O’Neill was physically dominant but struggled to assert himself. Had he played for Edmonton matters might have been different, for the Edmontonians were being badly let down by their strike force. But aside from Jordie Hughes the Victoria midfield was unable to get traction against Edmonton, and Hughes is not the sort of distributing midfielder that gets his strikers chances in bunches. O’Neill was constantly active but almost entirely lacked service. There may have been rust on him, but in any event with his midfielders not providing O’Neill was unable to make his own plays. His best chance came around the eighty-second minute when a Victoria midfielder finally got a ball to O’Neill on the run. O’Neill outpaced the Edmonton defender easily and came up against Jas Gill, whose aggression for once served him in good stead. Gill charged out to meet O’Neill while the striker was still rounding his defender, and no sooner had he seen off one challenge than O’Neill was facing another. Gill more-or-less shoulder-checked O’Neill; not much of a play but he was able to outmuscle the German veteran and O’Neill scuffed the resulting shot wide. Immediately following this miss, O’Neill was substituted out.

By this point, Victoria had also removed Jordie Hughes, depriving them of the best part of their firepower. And they were soon down to ten men thanks to a careless challenge from reserve Davis Stupich. Meeting Paul Matthijs at midfield for a fifty-fifty ball, Stupich went in wildly with his leg up and caught Matthijs on the leg with his spikes. Matthijs went down in a heap and was immediately substituted, being helped off the field without putting any weight on his right leg. Stupich was given a straight red card.

Victoria kept up the pressure, to their credit. In stoppage time, Romaie Martin bore down the centre. Martin was up against Paul Hamilton for the ball and played Hamilton physically: so physically, in fact, that Martin actually wrestled Hamilton to the ground. I was not twenty feet away when it happened: Martin got his arms around Hamilton, who tried to ineffectively grapple back, and pretty much flipped the Edmonton defender over. But the referee kept his whistle in his pocket, only to pull it out when Martin was fouled by the Edmonton defender rushing back to Hamilton’s relief. A clear foul in the box, but what on earth was the referee doing even letting play get that far?

With no time left, defender Tyler Hughes stepped up to take the penalty. Jas Gill guessed the right direction but missed the ball: the game was tied at two. Edmonton actually mustered a half-decent chance in the dying seconds but for nothing: it was a 2-2 final.

It was clear that FC Edmonton had taken their foot off the gas when Matt Lam scored. All the same, Edmonton deserved a win: had Rein Baart been in goal instead of Jas Gill it would have been 2-1 at worst. The most egregious dip came from Shaun Saiko, who with the score 2-0 ceased his destructive attacking charges and let up defensively as well. He played too many poor balls to Victoria’s feet (one actually led to Martin’s chance and the ensuing penalty) and the sublime dominance he showed in the first half was almost canceled out by his mediocrity in the second. Most of Edmonton’s defense and midfield went in with less intensity and played the ball with less thought, letting Victoria sustain scoring opportunities. Although Brandon Watson was tremendous in goal for the Highlanders Edmonton had chances they ought to have scored on anyway and failed to put away.

There was more to be happy than upset about for Edmonton supporters. This is a young team, and many of its players won’t be around when the games start counting. Of the core parts, most acquitted themselves well. They coped with Jordie Hughes and Riley O’Neill, the sorts of players that are dangerous in the NASL, well. And let’s not forget that although they let Victoria back into the game, once it was tied they showed some surprising pluck in charging the Highlanders goal for a last-ditch winner. Given the skill level of these players, it’s a credible result.

But it could have been a win, should have been a win, and if Dwight Lodeweges isn’t letting them know that he isn’t doing his job.