The Best Canadian PDL Northwest Ever

By Benjamin Massey · June 2nd, 2018 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Four years ago, soccer fans in Western Canada lamented the demise of a formerly-strong tradition in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League. USL PDL is an unglamorous amateur or semi-professional summer league, aimed largely at NCAA athletes looking to fill up the collegiate offseason. But it is excellent, and underrated, soccer which can lead to the professional game and, in some cities, produces great entertainment for four-figure crowds in communities that could not support the trials and tribulations of USL, let alone MLS.

But in the middle part of the decade we lost every single team west of Winnipeg. The Fraser Valley Mariners, playing at Abbotsford’s pretty but isolated Bateman Park, couldn’t justify the expenditure for tiny crowds and put out a lousy team anyway, folding after 2012. The Vancouver Whitecaps, stocking what had once been a highly successful PDL program with CIS players and Residency alums they had no interest in developing, pulled their team after the 2014 season when it somehow failed to pay dividends. Deprived of local rivals and denied a chance to move up to USL by Canadian Soccer Association restrictions, the Victoria Highlanders shut their doors. In the winter of 2014–15, the semi-professional game in western Canada looked very bleak.

The turnaround since has been gradual, unexpected, but brilliantly total. In 2015 Calgary Foothills, a prominent youth soccer organization, made the move up to USL PDL. Though they pay heavily for their distance from the Pacific Northwest and draw only average crowds, they have been a remarkable on-field success while in the stands they are slowly but surely developing a core of passionate support. Brilliantly-coiffed supremo Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., an English-born alumnus of the USL Calgary Storm, emerged unexpectedly as a great champion of Canadian soccer and has been building on his legacy since.

2016 saw the return of the Victoria Highlanders, now based at the University of Victoria. Victoria’s soccer community is quietly one of the best in the country, supporting teams down to the metro-league amateur level in 1,000-man throngs, defying changing demographics to maintain an old Canadian localist tradition in sport. The knock on Victoria has always been “there are enough fans, but you can’t get the corporate support;” well, when an amateur Highlanders team entered the Pacific Coast Soccer League in 2015 their fans were so numerous and raucous that the league president wanted them to calm down. Maybe devotion is enough. In 2016 local owners with no capital to speak of brought Victoria back to PDL through sheer willpower, and so far it has been a success. While nobody is tapping them for the Canadian Premier League, they’re doing something even better: they’re running a low-level, strictly local club and making it work.

And in 2017 we added TSS FC Rovers, another expansion of an existing organization, playing out of Burnaby’s hallowed Swangard Stadium. Like the Highlanders, their ownership hardly has more money than you or me but was willing to stake a successful business on building a spectator-friendly soccer club at a level high enough to be expensive but not so high as to be glamorous. So far their remarkably accessible ownership has not gone broke or suffered from embarrassing Twitter meltdowns, and while the crowds have not been universally excellent this is an organization that always looks like it’s having a good time. They have even entered a team in the WPSL, surely one of the most frustrating experiences a Canadian soccer sponsor can ask for, and emerged with good humour.

This gave western Canada three semi-pro teams again. But in the old days one of the western teams was always a weak sister, neglected or incompetent or otherwise dodgy, restricted to lunatics who would come watch soccer in a garbage dump if there was grass and sunshine. In 2017 TSS was interesting to devotees but, objectively, a pretty poor soccer team that took a three-point penalty from a paperwork mistake. Victoria underachieved while counting pennies; Calgary was excellent but fell short of the highest honours. It was the best summer western Canada had enjoyed in years, but not quite enough.

So far, the 2018 USL PDL season has been different. All three teams are proving well-worth following for even the ordinary fan.

The fans of TSS FC Rovers still bill them as “all-Canadian.” It’s slightly shame-faced since they must also say things like “Nick Soolsma1 is pursuing permanent residency” and “William Rafael’s from South Sudan, he didn’t come here for the soccer!” There’s no need to be embarrassed, really, since even by the strictest possible criteria the Rovers count as “very, very Canadian indeed” on the field, on the coaching staff, in ambition and mindset. They are bringing up underappreciated players such as the Polisi brothers, Matteo and Marcello, and Erik Edwardson, who will deserve at least a look when the Canadian Premier League comes into its own. Goalkeeper Andrew Hicks is continuing from a sterling 2017 and establishing himself as one of the best Canadian keepers outside the professional ranks, and this year he’s platooning with a remarkable duo of ex-Whitecaps Residency star Luciano Trasolini and former PLSQ and British Columbia provincial standout Mario Gerges. Their roster can no longer entirely qualify for our national team, but they’re still doing as much for our country as anybody this side of the Ottawa Fury.

No, no, that’s unfair. Take for example Calgary Foothills. If Foothills don’t win the Northwest Division it’ll be because the season is too short to show their excellence, but they’re as Canadian as it gets. The one all-out foreigner on the Foothills roster is defender Jay Wheeldon: he’s English but also coach Tommy’s brother, which surely gets him some slack. They also boast a legion of noteworthy dual-nationals like Carlos Patino (Colombia), Ali Musse (Somalia), Elijah Adekugbe (England and Nigeria), and Moses Danto (Sudan), but so does TSS. The fact that Foothills don’t get the same “all-Canadian” reputation as Rovers is down to a failure of marketing, not on-field focus. In fact, if you’re looking for really excellent Canadian players who are of an undisputed professional standard but need a fair chance, you’re looking to Calgary: Marco Carducci, Jordan Haynes, Jackson Farmer, Nathan Ingham, Dominick Zator, all men who should be making a living playing this game, and I haven’t even said the words “Nik Ledgerwood” yet, who with 50 senior international caps must be among the most accomplished men ever to walk onto a USL PDL pitch.

Calgary is stunning. Honestly, stunning. This site chronicled one of their demolitions of the FC Edmonton academy back in April, Already this year they have two wins over the Victoria Highlanders and a win and a draw against the Portland Timbers U-23s; the draw was a game Calgary absolutely deserved to win. Moses Danto has four goals, neither Carducci nor Ingham have put a foot wrong between the sticks, and across their first five league games they allowed only fifteen shots on target. (Rovers, by comparison, have allowed 30.) Add in shots directed and Calgary outshoots their opponents two-to-one, and they have not played anybody bad yet.

So the Victoria Highlanders, who have lost four of their first six, are the forgotten men. Which is too bad because Victoria’s assembled what would, in most years, look like a very interesting team. Cam Hundal and Noah Cunningham are both players who wouldn’t be playing PDL if there were decent professional opportunities in this country. Utility man Blair Sturrock, though aging, actually is an old pro in England and Scotland. Goalkeeper Simon Norgrove looked good last year but has been supplanted by Canadian senior international and Vancouver Island native Nolan Wirth. Most interestingly their coach is a very familiar name, Thomas Neindorf, the native German who’s earned a hell of a reputation for developing first-class youth prospects all over western Canada. After a few turbulent years the team enters 2018 under new local ownership that, to pick two well-known names from a long list, includes former salesman/general manager/front office do-it-all-man Mark DeFrias and a man with one of Canada’s most difficult but remarkable playing resumes, former CIS Canada West MVP, Highlanders goalkeeper, and, after a traumatic concussion, Canadian parasoccer international star striker Trevor Stiles.

We now know that Victoria, or rather the Victoria suburb of Langford, looks set to get a Canadian Premier League team in 2019 as Josh Simpson’s audacious Vancouver Island bid absorbed Rob Friend’s stadium-deficient “Port City” entry. The Highlanders are not yet involved but have made all the right noises about working alongside the CanPL crew. Local derbies between the professionals and semi-pros will be a delicious prospect to a community that still embraces its Vancouver Island Soccer League and turned out in big numbers for the old Community Shield matches between the Highlanders and the late PCSL Victoria United. We all want to see local rivals duking it out in defiance of North America’s geographically-restrictive franchise system, but Victoria is especially suitable, and looks likely to get it.

Friday night at Swangard, TSS and Calgary met for the first time all year and put on a gem of a game. The Rovers won 2-1, which was harsh on the Foothills, who despite lacking Ledgerwood demonstrated remarkable quality in all areas of the field. But that sentence in turn is harsh on the Rovers, who rose to the levels of their opponents to play a very good match on their own. With the Vancouver Whitecaps playing at the same time and rain in the forecast attendance was lower than usual, but those fans who did take the time were well-rewarded with ninety entertaining minutes. This follows TSS’s first ever road points, taking all three from the Victoria Highlanders a week earlier in another brilliantly fun game, and ahead of a Sunday return tilt against Victoria that promises more excellence.

The Canadian Premier League is drawing all the ink, for very good reason. But it is not the only part of the Canadian club soccer renaissance. Those of us on the right side of Saskatchewan are already enjoying some of the best soccer we’ve been able to see in many years. If CanPL can build upon this, ours will be a very fortunate country.

The Return of the Juan de Fuca Plate

By Benjamin Massey · June 23rd, 2017 · No comments

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In January 2012 fans on the Vancouver Southsiders message board and the Lake Side Buoys Facebook group decided that they would like to emulate, on a smaller scale, the storied Cascadia Cup. The previous year and scarf manufacturer Ruffneck had put up a trophy for the USL Premier Development League clubs in their native Washington, and anything they could do, we could do better. Both the Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders had PDL teams and their fans, who don’t agree on much, concurred that a supporter-driven British Columbia trophy for the lower-division sides was essential. The Fraser Valley Mariners, also in the league, had no supporters to contribute but were not forgotten by those who did.

By that summer funds were in place, all donations by individual supporters and families. The trophy was commissioned. Drew Shaw, the Lake Side Buoy who’d come up with the original idea, also carved a handsome trophy base out of Western Maple in the shape of the province of British Columbia. A banner was ordered. The trophy got the best name in semi-professional sports, the Juan de Fuca Plate, and one of the worst websites. There were ribbons and brass plates for the winner. It was all done with, by the standards of the supporters involved, immense professionalism, patience, and expertise. When the trophy was first unveiled it was genuinely gorgeous, even if the Plate itself is so light you can use it as a frisbee. (Note to winning players: please do not use it as a frisbee.) The fact that the Plate itself is the perfect size to fit as a lid on the Cascadia Cup is a coincidence, but not an inappropriate one.

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s no point denying that, to players, these things can be a joke. A trophy you get for playing between two and six games, depending on the season. Unbalanced schedules, no prizes or further competitions, not much history, lower-division eccentricity everywhere you look, and a dozen guys screaming like that few hundred dollars worth of wood and silver plate is the biggest prize in soccer. Players, coaches, and supporters have different perspectives, and this goes double in a developmental league like USL PDL when every player’s dream is, ultimately, to leave.

But the Juan de Fuca Plate was never quite risible. The Whitecaps PR staff, to their eternal credit, loved it immediately and went to some lengths promoting it. The Highlanders soon followed. Every game a few more fans came out to cheer a bit louder for this thing, and every year whichever team won it… well, they laughed and they shot the breeze, but they posed for photos, celebrated a little, passed the Plate around with honest interest, and seemed genuinely pleased to triumph. This was important to their fans and, when you’re playing on such a small scale, that importance can’t help but be felt on the field.

Indeed, we built better than we knew. Highlanders and Whitecaps supporters built and piloted the project. Yet everyone was instinctively cautious about perpetually committing it. The engravings on the Plate declare that it was donated “by supporters of football in the province of British Columbia.” The ribbons were procured in the colours of Vancouver, Victoria, and (rolls eyes) Fraser Valley1, but a set of generic BC ribbons were also ordered. Conceived with USL PDL in mind, the trophy is really for “lower-division soccer;” it’s about a BC derby in some form rather than specific clubs or leagues.

This was wise. The Fraser Valley Mariners folded after the first Plate. The Whitecaps PDL team seemed to be in jeopardy every spring and, after the summer of 2014, it was formally shut down. That same year Alex Campbell pulled the plug on the Highlanders and, with nobody left to play for it, the Plate went into abeyance. Two seasons passed. The Highlanders returned under new ownership, alone. As the 2014 defending champion and the sole representative of British Columbia their fans held the Plate by incontestable right, but they could only serve whisky off it in solitude until, late in 2016, it was announced that Richmond’s Total Soccer Systems had bought the Washington Crossfire and would bring them to BC.

It is June 23, 2017. After three years, one month, and one day, the Juan de Fuca Plate will again see the light of day at Swangard Stadium.

In USL PDL, that’s a century. Since the last Juan de Fuca Plate match the newco Highlanders have assembled an almost-entirely-new roster missing, among many others, their formerly totemic brothers Jordie and Tyler Hughes. Cam Hundal, the only three-time Plate champion, is out of the league this year. The Rovers boast several Whitecaps Residency alums but nobody who happened to get into a Plate game. The only player on either team with a second of Juan de Fuca Plate experience is 35-year-old Highlanders forward Blair Sturrock, a veteran of the Scottish and English Football Leagues as well as, much more importantly, the 2013 and 2014 Plates. Indeed Sturrock contributed to the greatest moment in Plate history, when Marco Carducci robbed him blind in the 86th minute of 2013’s final game to get the Whitecaps the trophy.

Yet the Plate remains, its fans loyal as ever. The banner has apparently been lost but the trophy was pulled out of storage and shined up before the Rovers move was even official. It helps that many Rovers supporters are current or former Whitecaps south-end standees, who either feel alienated from the franchise or want local flavour to go along with their full-time MLS fun. A few of the Vancouver donors to the Plate already go to Rovers games. Michael McColl, who took care of the Plate’s on-field history at AFTN Canada, donated to the Plate in 2012 and does Rovers colour commentary in 2017. The Highlanders have been through very tough times, but the Lake Side Buoys are with us still and God willing always shall be.

2017 Juan de Fuca Plate Schedule
Date Time Home Away Venue Stream?
06-23 19:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
06-25 18:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
07-09 14:00 Victoria Highlanders TSS FC Rovers Centennial Stadium, Saanich YouTube

We’re a small community, British Columbia soccer supporters, but we’re good at what we do. The Ruffneck Cup, which partially inspired the Juan de Fuca Plate, has been defunct since 2015 even with two Washington teams remaining in PDL. The Cascadia Cup is stronger than ever but politics, both of the soccer and the non-soccer varieties, have taken away some of the old joy. Nothing could be more oblivious than to praise the purity of an semi-professional soccer competition that hardly anybody knows about and which took the past two seasons off as some moral success. But though the Plate’s grassroots, intimate character is as much a product of circumstance as design, it’s still terrific. Every fan who shows up at tonight’s Plate match is going to get close enough to hold the trophy and get a photo with it, if he so chooses. That can only happen because there are so few, which is a mixed blessing, but it sure is fun.

Not that we shouldn’t want the Juan de Fuca Plate to grow. This very article, in its minute way, will hopefully push a few more fans towards it. Sometimes I fantasize about that very trophy being presented to the professional champion of British Columbia before 25,000 screaming Canadian Premier League supporters. Growth does not have to sever our connection to the trophy we made. The Canadian Soccer Association has handed out the Voyageurs Cup for the past ten years and the main complaints from long-time Vs is that the name of the corporate sponsor was too prominent and the presenting Voyageur only sets the trophy on a plinth rather than passing it to the winning team. If you laughed at how penny-ante those problems are, you understand why I’d love to see the Plate become as big a deal in our league as the Cascadia Cup is in the American one.

Such dreams are years in the future, and not just because a CanPL with multiple British Columbia teams is so far away. The Juan de Fuca Plate has to rise to that dignity. TSS Rovers play the Victoria Highlanders at Swangard Stadium on both Friday and Sunday evenings (tickets $10, online or at the door). The return engagement is in Victoria on Sunday, July 9 at the University of Victoria’s Centennial Stadium (tickets $12). You should come, if you are at all able, or watch on YouTube if you are not. Do it to support the local game. Do it so you can say you were there when this was all green fields. Do it because it’s a sunny day and Swangard Stadium in the sun is the best place in the world. Most of all, do it because dozens of supporters, players, coaches, and front office people have somehow combined to create a perfectly beautiful gem that you can enjoy on the most intimate terms, in a soccer culture where we’re usually competing to be the most cynical.

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 Systems) 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, 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.

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…)