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.

Hearing the Noise of the Lake Side Buoys: the USL PDL Season Opener

By Benjamin Massey · May 9th, 2010 · 4 comments

This is majestic, picturesque, and ironically-named City Centre Park in the quaint little burgh of Langford, British Columbia. It is everything to hate about the modern Canadian soccer stadium. Seating about 1,700 with standing room well over 2,000, the stadium boasts a plastic pitch so the rugby players can use it, lines for multiple sports badly hidden by mediocre paint jobs, one restroom in the form of a porta-potty at the northwest end of the stadium, one beer garden with a thirty-minute line at halftime, and because politicians are idiots it’s out by an industrial park in a far-flung suburb of Victoria.

God, what a fantastic place to watch a soccer game! The sun is shining, the birds are tweeting, there’s a little man-made lake at the east end of the park which is simultaneously incredibly twee and incredibly cool. The plastic pitch is still new enough that the game is quite enjoyable on the surface, security guards aren’t uptight bag-checking assholes, and the fans have the good-spirited nature of people who are watching a semi-professional soccer game in the middle of nowhere and just having a whale of a time.

Last night opened the 2010 USL PDL season, as my boys the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency took on the hometown Victoria Highlanders. Most of the Whitecaps fans were at the actual Whitecaps game in Burnaby against Crystal Palace Baltimore, but as a Victoria resident who’s working Sunday getting to that game was an impossibility. Watching the kids seemed like an enjoyable second choice, so I threw on kit and scarf and walked to the Bard and Banker Pub, downtown gathering place for the Highlanders supporters. The Highlanders supporters club is the Lake Side Buoys (geddit?), who congregate in the Bravehearts section at the east end of the pitch. There was a bit over a dozen of them at the game on this occasion, as well as a healthy four digits attendance from the normal people. In spite of their modest numbers, the Highlanders supporters are a terrific bunch: some of them were be-kilted, there were bagpipers in attendance, and they had a pretty healthy songbook for a small group of people supporting a team in its second season.

The match itself was a far more interesting one than the 0-0 borefest  at Swangard Stadium across the water. The Whitecaps Residency team, by its very nature, is a rather odd bunch. These aren’t guys who are there to win games, really: they’re playing to catch eyes on the Vancouver senior team and play in MLS someday. The roster changes more freely than most in PDL, and tactical priorities sometimes take a back seat to the desires of the first team. The perhaps inevitable result is that the Residency team, too often, plays like eleven individuals rather than a cohesive unit. The fact that the Residency added a new coach (on an interim basis) just a day before this game cannot possibly have helped them.

The Residency team clearly had the more talented players, but the Highlanders had the better team. Not just in their ability to play as a team but physically: the Highlanders were an astonishingly big lineup, particularly at midfield and up front. Their big men didn’t always have the pace to back up their size but their superior form made up for it. Only a few of the Residency players were able to cope with the big Highlanders attack. Central defender Jack Cubbon made a fan in me today: not only was he one of the few Residency players who looked interested in playing with his teammates, but he was the defender who could best handle the larger Highlanders. Cubbon is a pretty tall drink of water himself but he’s also built like a string bean, and he did his best work playing the angles and forcing the Victoria attack into channels it didn’t want to take. He was also just about the only guy on the Residency team who wasn’t completely useless in the air, so naturally he was playing deep and covering the goal line on the corner that led to Victoria’s first goal.

Individually, the two most skilled players on the field were both Residency players: Russell Teibert and Alex Semenets. But they were a study in contrasts. Teibert, the captain, played a roaming midfield role devotees of the Dwayne De Rosario oeuvre would find familiar. He was ridiculously talented on the ball and at times showed very good touch. He was also so short it was like the punchline to a bad joke, although to an extent he made up for it with great jumping ability. However, he was almost completely ineffective throughout the game. Teibert disdained working with his teammates for the most part, preferring to try to do it all himself against the far larger and more mature Highlanders players. He played through balls as if expecting a striker to be on the end of it without checking that the striker was there first. He took most of the Residency corners and wasted them all, and in general his distribution showed that he was incorrectly anticipating events rather than noticing where his players actually were. In spite of taking almost all the dead balls in the first half he was used more sparingly in the second while becoming invisible on the pitch to the point that for a time I thought he had been substituted. Teibert also shies away from contact. A man his size should avoid unnecessary collision, of course, but Teibert took it to an extreme, including charging at defenders as if expecting to be able to get by them, the defender holding his ground, and Teibert just bailing out without the ball in a brutally unforced turnover.

Semenets was far better. He combined Teibert’s skill with the ability to use it as a team player. He reserved the right to take on the entire Highlanders defense by himself but was also willing to try and work with his strikers as well. He scored the Residency’s first goal on a sterling effort: he ran a give-and-go with Teibert that resulted in Teibert actually reading where the play was going and knocking a terrific ball to Semenets. Semenets was at the corner of the area but that didn’t stop him and he labelled a terrific strike that found the top corner, leveling the score at 1-1. Semenets was also responsible defensively and dominated the left side of the pitch for ninety minutes without appearing to tire, in spite of some physical abuse and picking up a knock around the forty-minute mark.

A few of the other Residency players stood out for reasons both good and bad. Goalkeeper Richard Causton got the start for Vancouver and showed some shot-stopping ability, including a penalty. His agility is certainly PDL standard, if maybe not USSF D2. His decision making on his distribution was sometimes bad and he was a very vociferous communicator with his defense: perhaps too vociferous. This is the sort of thing one only notices when standing six feet from the touch line in a PDL stadium; Causton is a classic grumbler, mumbling minced oaths about his defenders whenever the ball went up the pitch. Every goalkeeper does that a bit but Causton kept up a running dialogue throughout the first half when he was close enough for me to hear. Moreover, for all his shouting at defenders his instructions seemed sometimes contradictory and countered by good sense: on the occasion of Vancouver’s first goal he ordered little Russell Teibert to mark a far taller man on the outside when surely an aerial man would have been called for while Jack Cubbon stood around the goal line in a maze of bodies, meaning that neither player was in their best element when the ball was delivered.

Teibert, in general, seemed to be a bit of a whipping boy for Causton. Whatever my complaints about the Residency captain, he picked up his marking assignments and put on an effective, if hardly elite, defensive performance. Causton may have just been upset about the mismatch between his smaller players and Victoria’s oversized attack, but picking on midfielders is hardly the best way to address that.

Substitute striker Caleb Clarke also stood out in the wrong way. At 6’1″, Clarke was a good tall choice against Victoria and has the speed underpinning that size. As soon as Clarke came in for Doudou Toure he became a target man for the Residency. But, for his size, Clarke was putrescent aerially, winning not a single one of the many headers I saw him attempt. Though good enough with the ball at his feet, Clarke was nowhere near Semenets, Teibert, or Toure in that department. Somebody like him has to be able to mix up Vancouver’s attack, and Clarke was found wanting.

The game was chippy, and both sides picked up penalties. Victoria’s came first, in the sixty-sixth minute. I missed the foul on the far end of the pitch, but the crowd howled in derision and the referee did not hesitate in pointing at the spot. Patrick Gawrys, one of the biggest and best Victoria players on the evening, took the kick from the spot after some scuffling and confusion. A poorly-struck spot kick resulted, near the middle of the goal, that Causton blocked easily. But there was enough power that Causton was unable to control the rebound and Gawrys followed up with an easy goal. Gawrys bagged his second hardly ten minutes later on a fine, well-built play from Victoria: the sort of thing that real teams can do even against more talented individuals like Vancouver’s.

The Whitecaps penalty came late, and this time I did see the foul. Clarke had the ball coming down the left-centre into the Highlanders area, and the Victoria defender tried the classic shirt-tug to bring Clarke up short. Clarke, however, had a full head of steam, and whether he meant to or not the Highlander actually stepped up and into Clarke, putting his shoulder into Clarke’s body and sending both players down in a heap. A particularly egregious penalty, and even the Highlanders fans near me admitted “that was pretty bad”.

But Clarke was okay and Kevin Cobby took the kick from the spot. Effortless. Lower corner, and it was a 3-2 Highlanders lead. Vancouver buzzed for the rest of the game, primarily playing long balls to Clarke but getting a few legit chances: one that Clarke badly mishit near the site of his penalty and one from Russell Teibert, who seemed to have an empty cage waiting for him near the top of the box but put a shot through traffic wide.

3-2 Victoria stood as the final, and the better team won. But it was a good contest and one that involved some pretty good fans from the Highlanders, who sang and made noise that you associate with a far higher level than USL PDL. Even the soccer parents in the grandstand were more involved in the game than your stereotypical Canadian fan, applauding and following events with visible agitation. I know there are travel issues, and stadium issues, and all sorts of issues in the way of further growth. But if the Victoria Highlanders keep this up and they’re not in the second division within five years, it’ll be a disgrace.

Also, their supporters had a band going! How awesome is that?

Expanding the Voyageurs Cup

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

The Voyageurs/cansoc.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The big clubs would never go for it.

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

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

So, what do you think?

  1. The travel is still too damned expensive.

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

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

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

So, you smartass, what would you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My six teams would be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Good Ever Comes From Ottawa

By Benjamin Massey · September 2nd, 2009 · 1 comment

It’s a peculiarity of the Canadian game that, while football was practically the seminal working-class sport in all the old footballing powers, here true enjoyment of the game is largely limited to the upper and middle classes. Except for those lucky souls living in Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, attending a high-level match in this country requires a considerable investment of both time and money, to say nothing of the cost of truly being a supporter.

A Southsider in Victoria I know manages to get to the majority of Whitecaps home games every year. He does this by hopping on a float plane (ticket cost $120) from Victoria’s Inner Harbour, flying to Vancouver, going to a game, staying overnight with his parents, returning by ferry – unless he has to work early, in which case back on the float plane. And that’s just from Victoria to Vancouver; a trip that thousands make every day. I, personally, am going to the Vancouver – Puerto Rico match at Swangard Stadium on Saturday: staying one night (since the ferry doesn’t run late enough to catch after the match) in the cheapest hotel practical will mean that one game will cost me an entire weekend and about $120.

Southsiders who ask why I don’t go to many matches? That’s why!

And I have it easy! Imagine being in Winnipeg, with your nearest Canadian team above the college level being the Premier Development League’s Thunder Bay Chill. Or in Edmonton, where your home team would be in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

This is a large part of the reason I support the Canadian men’s national team playing in as many cities as practical. Yes, the support in Toronto is superb, but if we play all our matches in the east the result is that western Canada won’t give a hoot. Football is the canonical example of a sport that is better live than on television, and no number of 1080p broadcasts and imported British announcers on the allegedly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will change that. There’s a world of difference between a Calgarian seeing Toronto FC take on FC Real United or whatever and having a team to cheer for in his hometown, if only for a day.

This is also why, even if Montreal and Vancouver move on to greener pastures, I desperately cheer for the USL Division 1 to remain competitive. There will always be cities which won’t support MLS, and USL Division 1 is perfect for the Edmontons of the world (I’ve written about Edmonton’s A-League experience elsewhere on this site). Barring a remarkable change in the very structure of the league, the Canadian Soccer League will never fill that role. It will be up to either a Canadian league conceived from the ground up as a USL-1 replacement, or we will once again have to rely on the Americans.

So I should be happy with the much-reported news that Jeff Hunt and the gang in Ottawa are getting a USL Division One expansion team. Ottawa is already served by the Fury of the USL Premier Development League, but they are by and by large ignored by capital city citizens. The average attendance of the Fury in 2009 was 495 fans a night, the highest season total in franchise history. Compare this to another oft-rumoured USL-1 destination, Victoria, where the expansion Highlanders averaged 1,750 fans per game, according to the club.

The Ottawa USL franchise will have an uphill battle from the start. They’ll have an unusual amount of local competition for a Canadian football club, with MLS’s Toronto FC and the soon-to-be-MLS Montreal Impact a day trip by rail for the discriminating football fanatic. There are very few parts of the country that can be said to be well-served by football, but Jeff Hunt will try to give it a go in one of them. Moreover, Ottawa discards sports franchises like most people discard lovers, with only the Senators and Hunt’s 67’s showing any long-term success.

For all of the success in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, Canada is a young football market in many ways. The A-League’s Toronto Lynx were notoriously poorly supported, aside from the diehards in U-Sector, and only the prestige of Major League Soccer shook Toronto’s dormant football fandom from its post-Blizzard slumber. The Whitecaps were always successful but have only recently started selling out 5,288-seat Swangard Stadium on a regular basis. The Impact were the anchor of the A-League for most of its history but their ticket numbers are dipping.

Meanwhile, failures in Edmonton and Calgary in the 1990s scuttled A-League and USL-1 expansion into Canada for over a decade. We forget that when the Aviators joined the league, there was talk of expansion across Canada; possibly an entire Canadian division. Plagued by bad ownership, both Calgary and Edmonton folded in disgrace and the continuing success in Montreal and Vancouver did nothing to persuade USL-1’s administrators and prospective investors to take another chance. Ottawa’s failure may have the same cooling affect, a general shrug, “only immigrants care about soccer in Canada, so you can only have it in the big cities”, and further obscurity for most of the country.

Jeff Hunt has been using the USL-1 idea essentially as a carrot to persuade Ottawa to approve his stadium proposal. He never comes off as a football fan; never looked like he really cared about USL-1 beyond its immediate money-making potential. Well, USL-1 doesn’t make much money for most of its owners, and if Hunt pulls his backing it will be a disaster for the whole country. Let’s hope that Hunt is in it for real.

Love Never Lies

By Benjamin Massey · July 21st, 2009 · 1 comment

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we fall in love.

Oh, I’m don’t mean the birds and the bees. I’m talking about the only sort of love that truly matters, the only love that can last through the aeons, that never lies and never sneaks around at night: the love that can only belong to something that really matters, like a sports team.

I’m the sort of guy who writes eulogies to the Edmonton Aviators and posts pictures of Rick Titus on his website, when Rick Titus is considered a biological weapon in seventeen Latin American countries. I held off, to the point of pride, on throwing my lot in with the Impact or the Whitecaps or the FC, even when I moved to Victoria or was surrounded by Toronto fans every time I went to any message board or was entirely abandoned by Impact fans who didn’t attend a national match against Honduras (okay, my flirtation with Montreal ended early). I cheered for Vancouver in the Voyageurs Cup on an intellectual level: after all, underdogs are good (sorry, Toronto) and fanbases that don’t abandon the Nats in World Cup qualifying are good (sorry, Montreal).

Then, earlier this year, Vancouver lost the Voyageurs Cup thanks to Montreal’s impression of Craig Forrest, Frank Yallop, and Ipswich Town taking on a particularly feisty Manchester United. And I went off, and I ranted, and I raved, and I told people to die in a fire, and somewhere in there I realised that I wasn’t exactly being intellectual about it. Dammit, I had started to care. Like a footballing version of a nineteenth-century courtesan, I had told myself the one thing I was never allowed to do was fall in love, and now here was my own personal romantic movie, starring Teitur Thordarson as Ewan McGregor.

There’s probably an element of sheer masochism in it, mind. It is entirely in-character that I didn’t bat an eyelash at the Whitecaps when they won the USL-1 title but was suddenly in their corner when they lost the Voyageurs Cup. Bear in mind that I also cheer for Charlton Athletic, an A-League team that hasn’t existed for almost a decade, and of course Canada. I hope there’s nothing revealing about my personality in there.

And yet, while with every day I live and die a little more with the Whitecaps fortunes (on Sunday I sang and chanted with five Southsiders at a Whitecaps Residency match when they took on the Victoria Highlanders, and nearly got involved in the worst rumble in footballing history for my trouble), sheer geography limits the extent to which I can be a true diehard or earn the right to wear that Southsiders scarf I bought. A Victoria Southsider I know pays $120 each way for a float plane to take him to and from Vancouver for most of the Whitecaps home games, but without disclosing the contents of my tax return let’s just say I won’t be doing that any time soon.

It’s a peculiarity of the Canadian game that, while football was practically the seminal working-class sport in all the old footballing powers, here true enjoyment of the game is largely limited to the upper and middle classes. Except for those lucky souls living in Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, attending a high-level match in this country requires a considerable investment of both time and money, to say nothing of the cost of truly being a supporter.

Imagine being in Winnipeg, with your nearest Canadian team above the college level being the Premier Development League’s Thunder Bay Chill. Or in Edmonton, where your home team would be in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Or the Atlantic, where unless you appreciate the semi-professional leagues that have been so successful in each province you’re looking at a trip to Montreal for the professional game.

This is a large part of the reason I support the Canadian men’s national team playing in as many cities as practical. Yes, the support in Toronto is superb, but if we play all our matches at BMO Field, what will the rest of the country do? Football is the canonical example of a sport that is better live than on television, and no number of 1080p broadcasts and imported British announcers on the allegedly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will change that. There’s a world of difference between a Calgarian seeing Toronto FC take on FC Real United or whatever and having a team to cheer for in his hometown, if only for a day.

The essential reason I still dwell on the Aviators after all these years is that they were my first love. Just like noone forgets their first real romance, no matter what happens there’s a place in your heart for the club that introduced you to the joys of the beautiful game. I was lucky. I had an opportunity, even if it was only a brief one, in Edmonton. A kid growing up in Moose Jaw will be limited to only the pale shadow of the experience you get from watching Barcelona and Manchester United play for yet another European trophy, dimly knowing that something important to a lot of people is going on but also weighted down with the awareness that you can never, ever be a part of it.

If we want to live in a world where we get more than fifteen fans to a Canada match in the United States, we should make it a world in which most of this country can, without killing an entire weekend or half a paycheque, go to a high-level match and watch good players play the game the way it was meant to be. Don’t talk to me about travel costs or players wanting to go overseas. It doesn’t matter. If we’re going to grow support for this game, experience is everything.

Canada in the USL PDL: The Ontario Teams

By Benjamin Massey · April 22nd, 2009 · 1 comment

The USL Premier Development League is a footnote on the North American soccer scene, an organisation devoted to developing young amateur talent and coming fourth on what the Americans jokingly call their league pyramid behind MLS, USL-1, and USL-2 (USL-2 has never had a Canadian team and no prospect of getting any). Even in Canada, the USL PDL is best known by its connection with higher-division sides: the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program was a success in 2008, and we all remember the Toronto Lynx running from USL-1 like scalded cats when Toronto FC was founded in 2007.

The USL PDL has four clubs in Ontario and three more in British Columbia, with our introduction coming to Thunder Bay in 2000. But with seven clubs in the country, including two expansion franchises starting this year, the PDL has the potential to be a major part of this country’s soccer development. The Whitecaps Residency program is only the start – when seven Canadian clubs are pulling up talented amateurs, they’re inevitably going to produce assets for higher-level sides.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Canadian PDL sides have been singularly successful of late. So here is a primer on the underappreciated United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League, starting with the four Ontario teams. The British Columbia sides will follow in a future post.

The Thunder Bay Chill are the on-field success story. They managed to win the PDL last season, winning on penalties at Laredo’s home stadium in the single-leg final. They’ve contributed a couple of players to higher levels, with Colorado’s flashy young midfielder Kosuke Kimura plugging along in MLS and striker Brandon Swartzendruber recently signed to a USL-1 contract, and they’ve won the Heartland Division for two consecutive years. These guys, in short, can bloody well play soccer.

Their attendance in the championship season was a mediocre 564 per game, however, against a league average over 800. They’ve been a strong draw in the past and were over 1,000 fans per game in 2005, so it’s not as though Thunder Bay simply doesn’t care about soccer. Season tickets in their “VIP package” are $75 a head, so the price is right. Fort William Stadium isn’t precisely a modern facility, but it has seats and grass and dirt and lights and for the USL PDL anything more is excessive.

Thunder Bay’s got a bit of a weird schedule. They’re the only Canadian side in the so-called Heartland Division, meaning they play such natural rivals as Springfield, Denver, and Des Moines. Travel in the Heartland Division can be pretty brutal when you consider that these are amateur players and many of them are in school. There’s no real way around that for a city as isolated as Thunder Bay, but between difficult travel and low attendance it’s a good thing they’re succeeding on the pitch.

Logo of the USL PDL's Toronto Lynx. Copyright the Toronto Lynx.

We all remember the Toronto Lynx as the little doormats of Canada’s A-League teams, playing in their dinky thirty-year-old sandlot in front of seven guys losing by a converted touchdown when they played the Impact… those were the days. I make fun of them but they did a lot right, and as an Edmonton Aviators widow I can’t help but respect a team that’s managed to succeed like the Lynx have. So if you’ve been living in a hole and only emerging to watch Toronto FC get thrashed, you may have missed the fact that, since dropping a couple of divisions, the Lynx have been doing great.

Don’t get me wrong, they’ve been losing. They’re the Lynx, losing is what they do.  They were third in the division last year, eked into the playoffs for the first time in any league since 2000, but they drew a thousand fans a night last season

A thousand fans! To watch a marginal PDL playoff team in a city with Major League Soccer! In 2007 they were fourth in the league in attendance! The Toronto Frickin’ Lynx! Did I fall into an alternate dimension or something?

I’m going to come right out and say it. I thought that, when the Lynx went down to USL PDL, the guys on the pitch would outnumber the guys in the stands and by now I’d have run into Rick Titus serving me at an Orange Julius. It turns out I’m a massive idiot. Why are you even still reading? The Lynx are a fantastic success story and they’re an achievement Toronto soccer fans can be proud of. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

Of our PDL teams, the Ottawa Fury have provided the largest number of recent, consequential players. The country’s youngest soccer nomad Tyler Hemming played a couple seasons in Ottawa and Leonardo Di Lorenzo is a top player on one of the best teams in the USL-1. So they’ve never made the playoffs in their four-year history. What gives?

In four seasons the team’s moved through three managers. All-time, they’ve averaged 293 fans per home match. You’ll have an easier time finding tomorrow’s 6/49 numbers than Fury highlights in an Ottawa newspaper. A season ticket is $65 which makes the Thunder Bay prices look positively decadent, and yet nobody buys them. By the way, this city wants an MLS team. I’m actually glad Melnyk’s bid failed for that reason – Ottawa’s soccer apathy might have set Canadian club expansion back five years.

(Non-PDL-related aside: I’ve said that last sentence to several people and they’ve all looked at me like I was insane. But consider the following. After the Edmonton Aviators and Calgary Storm bombed out of USL-1 because of horrible ownership, when were we even considered for a USL-1 team again? To say nothing of an MLS side? Edmonton and Calgary had gone under, so the American football establishment said “them Canadians don’t like soccer”, stuck their fingers in their ears whenever the Whitecaps, Impact, and to a lesser extent the Lynx raised their heads, and hoped we’d go away. Then we had the great women’s U-20s, which led to BMO Field, which led to Toronto FC and the fantastic men’s U-20s, but those events don’t come along every day.)

I talk about the PDL being successful and good for Canadian soccer, but the Fury are an exception. The good news is that they have solid ownership and, really, it doesn’t cost a lot to run a PDL team even when the fans aren’t turning up. The Fury crew can afford to be patient, but the state of the Fury says a lot about how Ottawa would handle the big leagues.

Finally, the new guys, FC Forest City London.  Being an expansion team, it’s hard to judge just where they’re going to go. But they’ve made a bit of a splash early, bringing in Canadian U-20 international Michael Periera. They’re also squaring off directly against a Canadian Soccer League team, London City. London’s a decent CSL town, good for a couple hundred on good nights. But is there enough enthusiasm for minor league soccer in London to split two ways?

Forest City London’s had some facility problems too. Initially, they planned to play their home schedule at North London Stadium, while London City played at Cove Road Field. Instead, FC London will primarily play at TD Waterhouse Field, as well as Cove Road, Marconi Field, and the London Portugese Club for one game each. TD Waterhouse Field is smaller and frequently booked, and moving between four stadia is a hassle of epic proportions. But they also have liquor licenses, and North London Stadium did not. Even in the PDL, money talks.

It’s hard to pick a dog in this fight. All else being equal it’s obviously important for the CSL to succeed. We’re only going to get so far when our teams are feeders in American leagues, after all, and more importantly the CSL remains the best prospect for getting soccer between the Rockies and the Canadian Shield within our lifetimes.  But at the same time the CSL remains an Ontario league with one team in Quebec, and their pretentions aside any talk about them becoming a true national league has been only talk. Hopefully both Forest City London and London City can survive, with the PDL team catering to young players, the CSL to older ones, and everyone’s happy.

But when it comes to Canadian club soccer, when is everyone ever happy?