Voyageurs Cup: An Easy Lead to Lose

By Benjamin Massey · April 23rd, 2015 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Fury

Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Fury

Yesterday’s Voyageurs Cup opener was not one for the purists. Sloppy soccer. FC Edmonton had absorbed a Sunday battering coming back from the dead against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Ottawa was better rested (second home game on the trot, extra day off), but it’s early in the season and their Minnesota game Saturday had been no picnic. A few players (hello, Julian de Guzman) still looked to be playing their way into shape.

God, but it was fun, wasn’t it? An hour of near-total Fury dominance which should brighten the day for the few fans who ignored a must-win NHL playoff game to come to Lansdowne Field. The second-quickest goal in Voyageurs Cup history by young forward/strangulation specialist Oliver* and very nearly a couple more. FC Edmonton actually saw a dodgy call at a Voyageurs Cup game in their favour, when referee Geoff Gamble gave a spot kick for a tough hand ball on Ottawa right back Ryan Richter; Richter clearly had the ball hit his hand but was trying to protect his face. All’s well that ends well: Lance Laing struck the penalty hard and sideways but at a perfect height for the goalkeeper, and Romuald Peiser made a fine save.

The missed penalty, though, marked the point where it turned from a one-sided battering into a real soccer game. From there on out the Eddies attacked hard and owned most of the good chances. They tied it up through Daryl Fordyce’s third Voyageurs Cup goal against the Fury, took the lead when Laing read Rafael Alves like a children’s comic and stripped the ball with almost casual ease, and made it a 3-1 win late in stoppage time when the Fury defense had already succumbed to despair and Laing hooked up with Tomi Ameobi. The Ottawa Fury commentators seemed bewildered that Laing hadn’t started but this was by far his best effort of the season: maybe Ottawa had been lulled to sleep by the general uselessness of Johann Smith, but this was the first 2015 performance worthy of Laing’s highlight reel. The final score was very harsh on the Fury thanks to the Eddies’ gutsy, magisterial comeback: rumours that Laurie Hawn snuck a rally rabbit into Lansdowne Park at half were not confirmed by press time.

So FC Edmonton heads home up 3-1 on aggregate. They have not lost a home game since July 27, 2014 (nine matches) and have not lost at home by two goals since May 3. They have an unfair scheduling advantage: Edmonton has this weekend off while Ottawa hosts Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. Ottawa’s actually a fairly good road team, and got three two-goal wins away from home in 2014, but this season has seen a very disappointing, referee-influenced loss away to Carolina and a draw in Atlanta where an unremarkable offense carved them open more than once. The Eddies, a decent defensive side on paper, have a schwack of away goals to cling onto like the last potato in Latvia. In short, everyone will call Edmonton the favourite next Wednesday for good reason.

Naturally I am less confident. Coming into yesterday’s game I’d never anticipated a Voyageurs Cup less: last year’s criminal refereeing, and the consequent Montreal Impact fellatio for a CONCACAF Champions League run they never earned, has made me jaded, cynical, and bitter. 90 minutes of classic Canadian soccer has helped cure me, and the old nerves are back. The thing about the Voyageurs Cup is that its gods are capricious, and absolutely anything can happen at any time.

You no doubt spotted me calling the Eddies defense decent “on paper”. Albert Watson is an implacable stalwart and former NASL Best XI, Mallan Roberts makes inexperienced mistakes but also does a lot right, versatile Eddie Edward is underrated outside Ottawa and Edmonton, and even the much-maligned Kareem Moses has apparently taken classes in poise and alertness this winter. However, there have been a lot of blunders from that crew so far in 2015. The Rabbits were humiliated in Jacksonville thanks in no small part to Johann Smith at left back, making the most horrifying debut since chlorine gas. But they easily could have allowed more than one goal to Carolina, and Fort Lauderdale passed the ball through Edmonton with effortless ease at time last Sunday. According to the official statistics Edmonton has allowed 16, 12, 16, and 15 shots directed against in their four matches this year. Those are big numbers. They have been outshot every game.

In goal, Matt Van Oekel has been a human question mark, and even if Colin Miller wants to switch to John Smits he can’t since last year’s number one is on loan at Montreal. Moreover, the Eddies have already allowed two first-minute goals this season and very nearly allowed a third. If Ottawa pegs the aggregate score to 3-2 early, watch for the small crowd at Clarke Field to grow awfully nervous.

On Wednesday, the Fury easily could have scored a field goal. Wiedeman had a couple good looks. Oliver could have added one or two to his tally. Even Julian de Guzman had too much space and nearly scored from distance. Paulo Jr. was highly erratic but in midfield could be big trouble. Now that Neil Hlavaty’s gone Edmonton doesn’t really have that pain-in-the-ass defensive midfielder; Ritchie Jones isn’t really that guy and anyway that night he was either tired or dogging it. Ottawa was the best team, by a long way, for a long time, until it all fell apart and Edmonton showed superior character and cohesiveness. It’s great for fans, and even better for their heart surgeons, but guts, glory, and going for it gung-ho are no long-term replacement for preventing shots and getting more chances than the other guys.

After the game Edmonton head coach Colin Miller said all the right things about acting like it’s 0-0 and taking the second leg seriously. Good, but easier said than done. As much as you can with a heavy margin coming home against mediocre opposition, the Eddies look vulnerable.

* — The quickest goal in Voyageurs Cup history was on May 20, 2009, when the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Marcus Haber scored 33 seconds in against Marc dos Santos’s Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo. The Canadian Soccer Association press release says Oliver scored 65 seconds in but I think this is a typo: the correct time was 56 seconds. According to the best available information Haber and Oliver are the only first-minute scorers since the Voyageurs Cup began in 2002.

Sack the CSA

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2014 · No comments

Maple Leaf Forever! is not a widely-read blog. I would be surprised if it breaks the top twenty of Canadian soccer columns by hits. I’m just one jackass in his apartment reeling off opinions on subjects he cannot fully understand and the community knows that. However, even in my obscurity I put pride in accuracy and honest information, and therefore I owe my readers an apology.

I apologize for implying, in my posts over the past several weeks, that the 2014 Voyageurs Cup is an honest competition well worth the attention of the casual fan. This was grievously in error.

I apologize for railing against Major League Soccer’s fundamental dishonesty in this space, while ignoring the Canadian Soccer Association’s sins. I have no excuse. The 2009 Voyageurs Cup, in which Toronto FC, coincidentally the highest-profile team, hoisted a Voyageurs Cup they did not earn. The 2012 Cup, in which the same thing happened. The 2014 Cup, now. And I remember, even if many don’t, how in 2011 MLS Vancouver got every call against then-NASL Montreal to take a semi-final the Impact probably deserved to win. This is without considering other games; I have literally been writing about the perfidy of Canadian Soccer Association referees here for five years. I wrote about all these things at the time, but failed to put them together. I am sorry.

I apologize to FC Edmonton for suggesting that, if the Montreal Impact got the advantage in the second leg, you guys were screwed. In fact you guys played great once you were 3-0 down. This is faint praise, and you know it as well as I do, but “never saying die” is a valuable quality, particularly when you have every excuse to give up. In the end you fought hard and fully earned a trip to the Voyageurs Cup finals. The nation will not forget that.

Finally, I apologize again to FC Edmonton for suggesting that it would matter.

Part of me feels bad for the Montreal Impact. They showed balls. Once again, they proved that they’re the only professional Canadian soccer team that gets mad: which not only claims to have a sense of pride but goes out and proves it in situations where most teams would be written off. They’re a bad team, there’s no hiding that, but they care, and as much as I wanted Colin Miller to punch Joey Saputo in the mug there’s no denying the attitude Saputo has given them.

They were second-best on the tie, but what of it? We Whitecaps fans know, more than anyone else in Canada, the pride you can take in a glorious defeat. The Impact won the right to walk out with their heads held high. They came out gangbusters before a lacklustre crowd with a nation scoffing at them, and they lost all the same, but that happens sometimes. They deserved to, in the words of an American admiral of years past, dip their flag to no earthly king. But referee Drew Fischer has taken that away from them.

If you missed the game, I will give you a short précis. Montreal took a 3-0 lead in their home leg, and a 4-2 lead on aggregate, based entirely on the quality of their play. They were markedly in the ascendancy. But Edmonton’s Frank Jonke bagged a quick brace to put the Eddies ahead on away goals. Nobody likes losing on away goals but the Impact were staring it in the face, trying to batter Edmonton’s door down and not managing it. Then, suddenly, in an impossible six minutes of stoppage time, Montreal was given a penalty kick on a bogus handball. And that was the end. The controversial shot was ball to hand. That’s not in the Laws of the Game, but the afflicted player had his arms in hard against his body, and that is. It was never a penalty by the ruling of any competent official, but Drew Fischer thought he could decide a national semi-final based on it.

Of course every referee blunders. If this were the first time a CSA referee had come down mysteriously in favour of the higher-profile club I would give them the benefit of the doubt. But it was far from that. In fact, it’s a running theme ever since the CSA adopted a national championship format. From the 6-1 Toronto victory over Montreal to deny the USL-1 Whitecaps, to a rainout at BMO Field where Aron Winter took his team off the field and the CSA said “okay then,” to a semi-final last year where Vancouver got two goals over Edmonton that should never have counted from Silviu Petrescu, to Daryl Fordyce winning a dead-certain penalty last week in stoppage time at Clarke Stadium, the most clearcut foul you ever will see, that was completely ignored, to this. All without considering re season or playoff games between Canadian teams where the same things seemed to happen. If it were mere chance you’d expect the little guys to fluke out a referee-aided victory as often as the big teams, and yet that’s never, ever how it goes. Always the decision goes in favour of the team you’d think the CSA would want to win. Too long, and too many incidents, to say “coincidence”, as I once did.

I spent $30 to go to the Vancouver – Toronto game at BC Place, because I love the Voyageurs Cup and even my hatred of MLS didn’t override that. Instead, after this latest incident, I stuffed the ticket in my pants pocket and went home. Why should I go cheer on my team in a game where the result was pre-determined?

Okay, okay, I hear you protesting. Let’s say that this is all coincidence. That the Canadian Soccer Association genuinely wants the best team to win the Voyageurs Cup, and if that’s an NASL side so be it. You know, I can believe it… yet referees keep deciding the games in favour of the biggest cities with the most fans. The best-case scenario is that the Canadian Soccer Association is guilty of negligence and complacency in the first degree in a country where its former “national” league, the current Canadian Soccer League, has already been busted in a match-fixing scandal. This isn’t just me talking, the video’s out there if you want to re-watch the games yourself.

The people who led Canada’s men’s national team to an 8-1 World Cup qualifying loss in Honduras are still in charge. They have let us down every day since the 2000 Gold Cup, and they’re letting us down now. Once, when the incompetence got too much, we put on black t-shirts and chanted “sack the CSA” at Canadian national team games. “Can’t do their jobs, don’t take no blame.” Canadian legend Tomasz Radzinski even wore a “Sack the CSA” shirt off the pitch in his last home game (I was there). Somehow they’ve squirmed out from under that charge, and yet the horror continues.

Thanks for putting on a show, FC Edmonton. I know which team deserved to go to the final. So do all neutral fans, who have been flooding Twitter with protests, who were patting the one Edmonton fan in Vancouver on the shoulder when the latest screwjob hit. I underestimated you, as did the Impact for a while. Hopefully someday you’ll get a competition worthy of you.

Voyageurs Cup: Can They Do It?

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2014 · No comments Edmonton Edmonton

The question of the day is: “can they really do it?”

Can Vancouver really overturn a 2-1 series deficit against Toronto FC despite running out a Children’s Crusade lineup and getting slapped around pretty good at BMO Field? Even the positive moral value of playing all those Canadians is diminished today: Marco Bustos, Kianz Froese, Mitch Piraux, and Jackson Farmer are down in Florida with the U-20 national team[1]. Can Edmonton really get a result in Montreal against the Impact? It seems like everybody outside Montreal is cheering for the Eddies, because everybody loves an underdog and hates the Impact. (Everybody inside Montreal is ignoring this game because the Canadiens and Bruins are playing.)

Last week I pointed out Montreal was on a run for the MLS Wooden Spoon (non-Chivas USA category); in the seven days since they’ve given even the Goats a run for their money. The Impact are coming off an more-than-usually-embarrassing 3-0 home loss to the Kansas City Wizards in which Montreal was out-shots-directeded 12-4 and had a FIFA 14-style 21.8% of the possession (I know possession isn’t much of an indicator but twenty-one point fucking eight). Then again, Montreal was playing with 10 men for 73 minutes after Collen Warner got sent off. Then again again, the man they were playing without was Collen Warner. And that was just the latest in a long string of games in which Frank Klopas’s charges got the shit kicked out of them. And with the Habs selling out Bell Centre to watch TV it looks like the Impact will be playing in front of their moms and six Ultras.

The Impact are a bad team and getting worse. When FC Edmonton only needs a draw, and we’re talking about the most draw-ish team in the country here, that’s a good sign. But there’s one thing which, even when they’re flipping coaches like Pogs and scouring Serie A for 45-year-old Italians, you can always say about the Montreal Impact: they have a living, beating heart. That heart’s name is Joey Saputo, their greatest weakness and their greatest strength. You saw his tweet, I’m sure, after the Kansas City game, where he stated in cereal-box-approved style that “Our fans deserve better. Changes will be coming, guaranteed.”[2] It’s an old tune but, short-term, in the past it’s worked. Talk all you want about the players tuning Klopas out or the team being pensioners and Jack McInerney; we’ve heard that narrative and seen Impact teams we so casually wrote off coming out with all the fires of Hell lit under their asses in seasons past. Sure, eight times a season Joey does something eccentric, but thanks to him the Impact, alone out of every professional team in Canada, get pissed off.

You don’t want the Impact pissed off. Not when you’re FC Edmonton. Not when you’re anybody this side of Atlético Madrid. There’s still some punch in that old team, a fistful of skill, some diabolical finish, and they don’t need much tonight.

On balance, I think Montreal’s going to win this one and take the tie on the basis of “modest margin and superior team”, but it’s a near-run thing and the Eddies have some advantages. First, the Impact are bad. That’s the easy part. The Eddies are also bad, which is why I remain pessimistic, and Montreal has the Saputo Factor, but a bad team can always find a new way to disappoint you.

Second, Montreal gave its “A” team a good run in that Kansas City game. Brovsky, Ouimette, Mapp, and Bernadello all went 90. Felipe went 70, McInerney went 69. This points to another eleven of mild schmucks along the Blake Smith and Decomposing Patrice Bernier line, which is all to the good for Edmonton. Meanwhile, Colin Miller went with an A- lineup at the seriously-that’s-their-name Indy Eleven. Captain Albert Watson sat out entirely (through suspension). Tomi Ameobi also missed the eighteen. Hanson Boakai was an unused substitute. Neil Hlavaty (45 minutes) got a shorter run. This advantage is tempered by Montreal playing at home while Edmonton was in Indianapolis, but it’s an advantage all the same. The most important of that rested lot may not be Boakai but Watson, who is an excellent centre back for the level in almost every field, but is also physical. If history is any guide, he will need to be very careful to avoid conceding a penalty on some shabby excuse.

Third, Edmonton won that Indy game! 2-1, on a dandy quickfire double by Daryl Fordyce and Kareem Moses (trying to deny Erik Hurtado the title of “Most Implausible Scorer on a Canadian Team That Weekend”). That’s not a thing Edmonton does! FC Edmonton learning how to win on the road is like Happy Gilmore learning to putt. Indy Eleven is winless, with only two draws to their name, but they’re not quite a team of schmucks: everybody will know Brazilian ex-international Kléberson and more people should know dandy Honduran mid Walter Ramirez, who along with Lance Parker and Zurab Tsiskaridze was one of the three good things to come out of Miami FC. Ol’ Mike Ambersley has trundled in goals for more teams than I can count. And the Eddies beat ’em! Away! That, frankly, is a far more improbable feat than that mere “home win over Montreal” ever was.

The street thinks FC Edmonton will park the bus, lump the ball down the field to Jonke and/or Ameobi, and that if any chances come the Eddies way it’ll be through Boakai or Fordyce countering. They’re right. Colin Miller is one of God’s own bus-parkers. Nature imbued him with the power to take any combination of players and have them lumping the ball down to the opposite touchline within ten minutes of kickoff, and that’s in games he’s trying to win, not draw. It’s not even, necessarily, bad tactics. When you’re facing a modest skill deficit but holding onto a lead, the key is to keep the chances down. And, mentally, Montreal is a team that can get frustrated easily. The catch will be making sure the Impact expend energy as quickly as the Eddies do, and that means smart counters and the occasional aggressive sortie to make sure Montreal works for it. It can be done. I’m not betting on it, but it can be done. The trouble is that if Montreal snatches that goal, and Edmonton needs to open up the offense, they run right back into last week’s Hack-a-Jonke without the guarantee of more Boakai brilliance against a defense that now knows what to expect, and without much hope Karl Ouimette will forget how to do a header again.

Then there are the Whitecaps, who are looking to overturn exactly the same deficit as Montreal. But Vancouver is trying to do it against Toronto FC, probably the most talented team in the country this year who is taking this competition sort of seriously.

Here’s the thing. Obviously Carl Robinson doesn’t give a flying fuck about the Voyageurs Cup semifinal. Obviously. All his spin about “oh the kids have deserved it” is just that: if he really thought his young players totally deserved minutes against top opposition then he’d be playing them in the league, not exclusively in elimination Cup scenarios. In the grand story of the 2014 Vancouver Whitecaps, which is the more meaningful game: the home leg of a semifinal or away to the Columbus Crew? And in which game did Robinson run out the best he had? In which game did Robinson give interviews in which he, again, openly discussed which players he’d start? Quite. We’ll see if Robinson sends out the big guns in the final, should the Whitecaps get that far, but for now he’s treating the Voyageurs Cup like friendlies.

Which I would hate a lot more if it wasn’t getting Canadians some much-needed playing time, and if it wasn’t still leaving the Whitecaps with just a shot at victory. Sure, Toronto FC outplayed the Whitecaps Residency pretty hard at BMO Field, but that wasn’t primarily the Canadians’ faults and even that game was fully respectable. Now Toronto is in BC Place with a by-no-means comfortable advantage, and with Bustos, Froese, Piraux, and Farmer away the Whitecaps will be obliged to start an older player or two through sheer attrition. We’ll still see a young crew: Marco Carducci is confirmed to start again in goal, Christian Dean at left back (if he counts as a kid, which he shouldn’t; fuck off, NCAA), and my money says we’ll see Jordan Haynes at BC Place. But there’ll be a few more reservists rather than outright Residency kids.

The FCs have two road wins this year, in Seattle (uh-oh) and Columbus, but neither was exactly a day of glory. In both games Toronto was comfortably outshot, had less than 40% of the possession, and were outpassed by at least a 25% margin. In short, fairly lucky wins. They also got annihilated away by Salt Lake and lost ignominiously in Dallas. Their most recent game was a 2-1 loss at home to New England in which Toronto did not exactly play badly but certainly did little to earn a point.

The Whitecaps even have fatigue problems: Carducci and Haynes both played 90 minutes in a USSDA game in Seattle on Saturday[3], then Haynes saw 17 minutes for the U-23s in Kitsap on Sunday[4]. Teibert of course got garbage time in Columbus, as did starter-presumptive Nigel Reo-Coker, and I’m sure we’ll see at least one of Kekuta Manneh or Erik Hurtado start up high. Normally the side playing its “B” team has the advantage in fatigue; not so much today, and the use of Carducci and Haynes on the U-18 team when there was really no need is another data point for “the Voyageurs Cup is an afterthought to the coaching staff”.

You gotta like Toronto FC’s chances. (Let me rephrase, Whitecaps fans: you have to think that Toronto FC has better odds of winning the tie.) There remains the Joe Bendik factor. I don’t buy him for a second, I still don’t, and between him and the sketchy Toronto defense they could let Vancouver back into it with a breakdown like the one which gave Vancouver that hopefully-useful away goal last week. They do that sort of thing. With the Whitecaps liable to send out a second-rate offense (no, scoring a beauty against Columbus does not mean Erik Hurtado has suddenly learned how to be a forward), it might be necessary.

Right now I have Toronto and Montreal both going through, which coincidentally would be the result I want least, because I’ve learned by now how the soccer gods like to squeeze my balls.

(EDIT, May 14 10:07 PDT: this article originally asserted that the Toronto – New England game was this past weekend and made assertions about potential TFC fatigue based on that. Toronto in fact had a bye; the NE game was the weekend previous. I knew that, too. Thanks, Duncan Fletcher, for the correction.)

(notes and comments…)

The Greatest Day in FC Edmonton History

By Benjamin Massey · May 8th, 2014 · No comments Edmonton Edmonton

FC Edmonton has beaten an MLS team for the first time in competitive play. I defy you not to be happy.

Normally I like to play the master of historical context. “You say this is the greatest Whitecaps midfielder of all time, but Martin Nash blah blah blah, you MLS-worshipping schmuck.” To hell with that. This has been called the greatest victory in the five-year, four-season history of FC Edmonton. These people are correct. What a day. What a day!

After my shot at hype-calming on Tuesday, Hanson Boakai put on a show. His aggressiveness and confidence put the wind up a Montreal midfield more used to soi-disant Eastern Conference attacking midfielders of the Daigo Kobayashi type. A guy actually trying to shove the ball down their gullets is a rare thing. Meanwhile, the Impact defense was having kittens over Frank Jonke, going full Hack-a-Shaq on the big forward who, as if by compensation, had his most effective game of the year just pulling off little touches and making space for his comrades, as shown to perfection on the equalizing goal when Montreal had their mitts so full of Jonke they didn’t consider the possibility that Handsome Bowtie might make a La Liga-quality throughball to Tomi Ameobi, who’d have nothing to do but finish…

Holy crow, what a ball that was. Holy crow. Sated with your diet of EPL magnificence and looking forward to the World Cup you might not be as pumped as I but Canadians, as a rule, don’t make passes like that. I don’t know what they’ve been teaching Boakai over there in Edmonton but it must be working. (Also, he created two half-scoring chances with sheer legs and guts and even when his youthful exuberance led to Montreal getting the best of him on a possession he’d be taking another crack at it next time around. His teammates didn’t seem frustrated. Hlavaty and Fordyce, two guys who don’t mind running themselves, were happy to pass the ball off to Boakai and let him create the opportunity. Small wonder, with his passing and crossing being so dangerous.)

And then the winner. John Smits pounds it long, Karl Ouimette goes to head the ball back to (the excellent) Evan Bush, only he forgets the part where he heads the ball, Michael Nonni was lurking in case of precisely that sort of mistake, 2-1 Eddies. Another Canadian. One who, as Steve Sandor has pointed out at almost unseemly length[1], was a batted eyelash away from being cut before this season. Silviu Petrescu missed a clear penalty shout for Daryl Fordyce in the last Planck time of the match, the kind of thing that could could back to haunt Edmonton in the second leg, but no matter, not for now.

Victory long-delayed, after all, is the very sweetest. Edmonton went into the 2011 Voyageurs Cup full of young optimism. We didn’t get to see how justified it was, as star player Shaun Saiko was unjustly sent off after only 23 minutes and Toronto cruised to a 3-0 win. The next week, away, a Toronto “B” team easily slapped Edmonton around. In 2012 the Eddies played Vancouver in their first game and got thumped; the only no-bullshit home beating the Eddies have taken in this competition. The next week, away, a Vancouver “B” team easily slapped Edmonton around (though Yashir Pinto made things briefly interesting). And in 2013 Edmonton once again faced Vancouver and would have won but for Silviu Petrescu giving Vancouver no fewer than two goals that never should have happened, one offside, the other a flagrant dive for a penalty. It was a great injustice in a competition that’s seen its share. The next week, away, a Vancouver “B” team easily slapped Edmonton around.

So now Edmonton has their first leg victory, and long fucking overdue it has been. But you see that the second leg is the catch. Apart from 21 minutes at BC Place on May 9, 2012, Edmonton has looked outmatched away against MLS teams playing schmucks like Greg Klazura, Floyd Franks, Michael Nanchoff, you get the drift.

Will Montreal take the Eddies lightly? Remember that last year Toronto FC won 2-0 at BMO Field off a weakened Montreal in the first leg, back when we all thought the Impact would be pretty good[2]. The Montreal Ultras responded to this with a now-famous banner reading “nous on l’a pris au sérieux” — “we took it seriously.”[3] The Impact invited Toronto FC back to Stade Saputo and beat the FCs 6-0[4], tied for the biggest ass-kicking in the twelve-year history of the Voyageurs Cup[5]. A fair bit has changed with Montreal in the past year, but the Impact have form rousing themselves to vengeance.

This has been the obligatory pessimistic part of the post; those things had to be said, but this is still a magnificent day. You sometimes see upset games where the goalkeeper had the game of his life, the underdog had ten men behind the ball and snatched one on the counter, the goalposts rang with the sound of missed opportunities. Nah. Edmonton decided to trade punches with Montreal and won on every scorecard. There was nothing negative in their tactics. Somewhat unreliable official statistics had the two teams even on shots directed, 7-7, and Edmonton ahead on shots on target, 4-2[6]. Edmonton outcornered Montreal handily and led in possession until Montreal’s superior rest began to tell in the second half, and the pace changed to more straight vertical attack. Luck wasn’t conspicuous in either direction. Jack McInerney nearly made himself famous with an appalling header off the crossbar, but since he scored a few minutes later I think we can call that even, while as I mentioned Daryl Fordyce really should have had a penalty on 90’+4.

Oh, and man of the match was Hanson Boakai. Of course it was. Putting the “Canadian champion” into “Canadian championship” at 17 years old. Some eyebrows were raised when he was substituted out for Mike Banner, but the world is better off with Boakai running himself stupid for 70 minutes rather than trying to pace himself for 90. Banner is not the most popular player in Edmonton right now, his first two games have not been inspiring, but I swear he has talent. I will have to make a point of writing hopeful but somewhat skeptical article on Boakai before big games in the future. You know, people are already asking which big European club he’ll go to? It’s a little early, surely, it takes more than two man of the match awards to start buying plane tickets to Barcelona or Bayern Munich, but it’s been a long time since I saw a player that young look so bright professionally in this country. Maybe I never have.

The evening’s first game was less exciting but probably showed more of Canada’s soccer future, so let’s conclude with two paragraphs on the young Vancouver Whitecaps in their 2-1 loss to Toronto FC. Toronto took the “eleven barrels of hell” approach we discussed on Tuesday, as I feared. So with Toronto’s A- against Vancouver’s B- or C+ the result for the Whitecaps was about as good as we could have hoped for: out-played, certainly, but not Vancouver’s worst road game even of this season, with the critical first goal against caused by a lapse from veteran Nigel Reo-Coker rather than any of the youth. A key away goal, a survivable margin, and plenty to be proud of. It’s significant that the weakest links in the team were Reo-Coker, Erik Hurtado, and Johnny Leveron, not the raw rookies. (Hurtado had one nice touch that made a half-chance, then was immediately substituted off. “That’s not what we pay you for, Erik!”) The official man of the match was Issey Nakajima-Farran, who was playing on Rookie while his teammates played on Pro thanks to his matchup with Reo-Coker, but still asserted himself. The Whitecaps man of the match was Russell Teibert. Two more Canadian champions.

Let’s not sugarcoat it. The MLS debutantes, Froese and Bustos especially, weren’t used to the match speed. But of course they weren’t! How could they have been, this was their first exposure to it. Both showed skill, had nice moments, and weren’t overawed by the calibre of their debut: that’s what counts. Bustos looked like he was already ready to play once in a while in MLS, with only a slight trepidation in steering the attack standing out, and of course he cleared a ball off the line, which is always the right play. (Who would have guessed that Marco would be the first to a professional save?) Froese has been criticized for failing to read the patchy BMO Field turf, and fair enough, a professional needs to do better, but he also made the give-and-go with Russell Teibert that was Vancouver’s most skillful attack of the game. Marco Carducci was at fault for neither goal against, has been reviewed too harshly for his aggressive but ultimately effective early charge at Gilberto that Carlyle Mitchell cleaned up, made some tidy saves, and wanted only a bit of confidence. And, at last, a national audience saw some of the Bryce Alderson I’ve always been such a fan of. Hopefully this leads to additional appearances; no Whitecap deserves them more.

(notes and comments…)

Voyageurs Cup Second Round or Something: Wow Such Canada

By Benjamin Massey · May 6th, 2014 · 3 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

There are a few reasons why I’m even more excited than usual for the second round of the Voyageurs Cup this year. (Is it the second round, or the “first round proper”? Was the Edmonton – Ottawa leg the start of the competition, or qualification for the final rounds FA Cup-style? We need a ruling on this. For reasons too heartbreaking to get into the Canadian Soccer Style Guide is mostly about mixed drinks.)

Firstly, congratulations to FC Edmonton on their first ever Voyageurs Cup victory against the Ottawa Fury. Did you see the two games? You lucky dog. Sportsnet didn’t show them and the the stream was less reliable than Tony Donatelli: the Ottawa games had fleeting moments of watchability for us ordinary schmucks, but was apparently excellent for subscribers watching through Rogers’ website without a care in the world. The Edmonton stream was quite good when BT Edmonton finally flipped the switch on their end from Modern Family re-runs with maybe five minutes left in the first half. Given that both Ottawa and Edmonton are accustomed to putting out decent-quality web streams for NASL games on a weekly basis, one wonders what the fuck happened when suddenly the job was on the Canadian Soccer Association’s watch. Of course the root cause of all this is Sportsnet deciding to put darts, generic highlight packages, and Prime Time Sports re-runs on each of their six stations instead of Canada’s national soccer championship, but the ball was dropped rather heavily on what should, by now, be a routine job.

As the more watchable, not to mention the more interesting, of the games was the Edmonton leg that’s where most of the analysis has come from. Here are the highlights if you missed them[1]; you’ll observe that it is ninety seconds of young Canadian midfielder Hanson Boakai violating Omar Jarun so egregiously the police were called. The list of shifty midfielders who’ve slapped Omar Jarun around in this country is a pretty long one, and Boakai’s goal and two assists in that game, while remarkable and deserving of all the plaudits, were the first points of his professional career. So while observers naturally heap praise on Boakai for his game they have been a little conservative looking forward, especially with the coming of a Montreal Impact defense which, whatever its many flaws, hasn’t got Omar Jarun on it.

Ha of course not. Here is the Edmonton Journal‘s Norm Cowley with an article titled “FC Edmonton phenom could become a ‘Canadian Messi’.”[2] The headline quotes Colin Miller, who says the fateful words in a bit more of a pie-in-the-sky sense than the headline would seem to imply. Nick Sabetti of referred to Boakai as a “star midfielder” who is “already making a name for himself.”[3]. And fans have been beating the Boakai drum continuously for the past week. It’s heady stuff for a player who, last season, saw 34 minutes of action with no statistics of note plus 67 minutes so far this regular season (again, without achieving much). He’d be part of the second eleven full-time if the team was healthier, and the return of Mike Banner looks bad for his starting chances going forward. I like Boakai, though his game needs rounding out, but good God almighty it’s getting insane over here, all because, in the proud tradition of teams that don’t get media attention most of the year, people watched one game and couldn’t take it in context.

If the Eddies are going to beat Montreal they’re going to need a lot more than a game’s worth of teenager hype, and that’s only just possible. I haven’t watched much MLS this year but even I know the Montreal Impact have been… problematic. They have the lowest goal differential in the league among teams that aren’t Chivas USA. They have one point from four road games, and that point was an evenly-fought game against fellow Eastern Conference dumpster fire Philadelphia. Their defense allows enough shots that they’re almost 2013 Vancouver Whitecaps bad. With a few talented players but a highly sketchy defense and not enough midfielders you can rely on, they remind me a lot of the 2008 Toronto FCs, and we all know how they did against second division sorts.

On the other hand, Montreal has the talent to cause problems to the Eddies patchwork defense than I’d like: Marco di Vaio is the sort of clever, technical player just born to give Kareem Moses a nightmare. Jack McInerney is also a player. They’re well-rested, with no games since April 26 (a game they won, albeit while being outshot 17-7 at home by those same woeful Union), which partially ameliorates the travel issue and might well mean starts for their best eleven, though Saturday’s league game against the Kansas City Wizards will presumably weigh on Klopas’s shoulders. Finally, FC Edmonton is… well, I’d call them the Montreal Impact of the NASL, but part of me fears they’re the Chivas USA. Unless the Impact come in way off their best, and we can’t rule that out, it looks like Montreal’s tie.

There was one hopeful sign for the Eddies. Last week Impact coach Frank Klopas gave an interview with the team’s website where you could almost hear the boredom dripping off him.

It’s a team, I think, that’s very good in transition. They have pace out wide. They have some good, quality players. They’re very organized defensively[4].

No they fucking aren’t! “Pace out wide”? Lance Laing is almost fast, as is bench scrub Horace James. The rest of the guys are either bull-in-a-china-shop sorts like Eddie Edward or players who may be useful but are hardly known for pace like Michael Nonni, Neil Hlavaty, Mike Banner, or Boakai himself (shifty, yes, fast, not really). And as for organized defense, this came before the Eddies’ home thumping to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers so excuse Klopas that but they’ve still had a revolving door at centre back and left John Smits more exposed than a flasher at a preschool.

So yes, I’m predicting a fairly handy Montreal victory over the two legs. That doesn’t mean Edmonton doesn’t have upset potential, because they do. Neil Hlavaty is still trying to find 2011-2013 Neil Hlavaty within his heart somewhere, and if he does that’ll be a major link between the defense and attack which has been missing. Mike Banner didn’t look like anything against Fort Lauderdale but he’s a good player who had a dandy preseason. And Ritchie Jones hasn’t quite got his sights in yet: maybe MLS opposition will motivate him. Three midfielders letting the Eddies get away from their so-often-fatal route one soccer, combined with the idiosyncratic pitch at Clarke Stadium and Montreal’s possible presumption of victory. Victory has a recipe, but don’t show it to Gordon Ramsay, he would not be pleased.

I’m not just excited for Edmonton, though. Yes, it’s that rarest of things: Vancouver Whitecaps first team analysis on Maple Leaf Forever!

Well, I say “analysis” but I really mean “banalysis”. And I say “first team” but I really mean “whatever you call that thing Carl Robinson is going to throw out on the field.” First, Robinson named his Voyageurs Cup roster. This doesn’t mean too much since you can modify it until very late in the day, but it was still an eye-catcher: no Kenny Miller (well, we know why now), no Pedro Morales, no Jay DeMerit, Jordan Harvey, Andy O’Brien, or Nigel Reo-Coker, no David Ousted. But a load of Canadians, including recently-recalled Charleston loanee Jackson Farmer and Residency boys Jordan Haynes, Marco Bustos, Mitch Piraux, and Kianz Froese[5]. That’s a pretty aggressive declaration of youth. Then Robinson announced that he would be giving Carducci and Alderson their first professional starts against Toronto FC in the Voyageurs Cup[6]. Alongside Russell Teibert, and with possibly one or two kids coming off the bench, that means the Whitecaps could well use more Canadian minutes in one championship game than they did the entire 2012 season under Martin Rennie, and that’s without Sam Adekugbe, who’s injured.

I should be unambiguously delighted. I like Alderson a lot. This opportunity was long overdue for him, especially consider the oft-uninspiring midfielders he’s been competing with for minutes. Carducci hasn’t waited so long, but I wanted him to see a bit of time against the Chivas USAs of the world if practical: this is early for him, but he’s an undeniable talent, and if you’re going to rest Ousted much better Carducci gets the minutes then dolloping them to Paolo Tornaghi like it’s a reserve game.

Yet it does show a distinct disinclination to take the Voyageurs Cup as seriously as Vancouver should. Starting Canadians is good sense, but leaving important first-teamers off the roster apparently for sheer devilry and showing Ryan Nelsen your hand days in advance is a little bit much. In that sense Robinson’s treating an important cup match against a rival with a superior side like a preseason friendly.

Personally, I incline more towards pleasure than worry. Partially this is because I think the Aldersons and Teiberts can handle it, the Bustoses and Hayneses won’t embarrass themselves coming off the bench, and that even if the team as a whole winds up being a little weak it might be worth it if one or two of these boys can shine and force their way into the regular lineup. Even if there are disappointing players — and with this many kids getting this many vital minutes somebody will disappoint — the experience will help. Developing our best young talent, even if it costs games in the short run, is a winning strategy long-term. I wish we were developing it against the New England Revolution rather than in our Cup, but still so much better than nothing.

Besides, we don’t know what Ryan Nelsen is going to do. Just from scanning the fan world, the possibilities run from “Defoe, Bradley, and the full force of Toronto FC’s eleven barrels of hell raining down on the inexperienced Whitecaps to score a big lead and restore some confidence” to “I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s going 180 minutes.” I think Defoe is a little overrated and Bradley is a lot overrated, but I also don’t think Jackson Farmer and his 200-odd lifetime minutes against grown men is the man to defend either one. And I haven’t even said Gilberto yet, or Jonathan Osorio (though he may be injured), or Dwayne De Rosario, who is about 60% washed-up but still amounts to a useful player at this level.

On the other hand, if the “B” team comes out, who have we got? A goalkeeper, according to Nelsen’s press chatter Joe Bendik, who is below replacement level. A defense with an awful lot of nothing (Mark Bloom plays regularly for them! Mark Bloom!). Midfield? Well, yes, MeRo, but also Issey Nakajima-Farran and I mean come on, for God’s sake, Bryce, if you can’t handle Issey Nakajima-Fucking-Farran you’re not the player I think you are. In short, if Nelsen’s attitude is fairly similar to Robinson’s, there’s hope there. Depth on depth, the Whitecaps can slug it out with Toronto, though it’ll be a near-run thing.

Oh God I hope the Whitecaps win. I know that’s a pretty obvious statement coming from an alleged Whitecaps fan, but even more than usual. Oh God, give us this one.

(notes and comments…)

2014 Voyageurs Cup: Thrilling Games, Indifferent Coverage

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Compositional ennui has had me in the gut for weeks. I have a few written projects to half-poke at during any given day, and in the past month or so my total contribution to English discourse has been “half an unpublished blog post and about a page of ‘misc’.” It’s been the most deplorable laziness. Is there no cure?

There’s one. The 2014 Voyageurs Cup kicks off tonight when the Ottawa Fury, recently “promoted” from USL PDL, take on veteran NASL makeweights FC Edmonton at Carleton University (7:30 PM Eastern, 5:30 PM Mountain, 4:30 PM Pacific). It promises to be an interesting game. Neither Edmonton nor Ottawa looks like a contender early but Edmonton’s had a bit more going on: their 1-1 draw in Tampa on a last-minute Tomi Amoebi goal was a genuinely raucous counterpunching affair that could have converted the most sober fan to the excitement, if not the technical excellence, of NASL soccer. They lost 1-0 before an excellent crowd in their home opener to the New York Cosmos but, well, that’s the New York Cosmos: they operate on a slightly different plane from the rest of the league and everyone knows it. Meanwhile, Ottawa has just played mediocre soccer, losing a game home and away against unremarkable opposition. They’re stricken with injuries to the point that Drew Beckie might line up at centre back, paired with the decent but unremarkable Mason Trafford, which could be good for a chuckle. And you can never rely on a Marc dos Santos team not to lose 6-1 at home for no fucking reason.

I’m not saying expect a game for the ages, but the first professional soccer match between Edmonton and Ottawa since August 22, 1990[1] seems set to be close-fought. Small wonder I, and the bulk of the Edmonton and Ottawa soccer communities, are more excited than Jack Warner with a new Swiss bank account.

Yet, somehow, the Canadian soccer media sits on its thumbs. has nothing on the coming game. has nothing. has nothing. Sportsnet, self-proclaimed “home of Canadian soccer”, not only has no Voyageurs Cup news on their site but isn’t even bothering to broadcast the game: it will be streamed live on the CSA’s website[2]. Duncan Fletcher over at Waking the Red gets full marks for essaying a post even though he’ll be the first to admit he’s no NASL guru[3], and you can always count on Daniel Squizzato even if he has an unhealthy love for traumatizing innocent Vancouver-based bloggers[4]. That’s it for national coverage beyond club and league sites. Local scribes have been working: the Edmonton Sun‘s Derek Van Diest took a swing from the “local players” angle[5] and over in Ottawa their Sun‘s Chris Hofley had a look[6]. But if you didn’t live in Edmonton and Ottawa and didn’t already know this game was happening, and what it meant, I can’t imagine how you’d find out.

This is a pity because the Voyageurs Cup is my favourite tournament in soccer. Notwithstanding some recent unpleasantness[7], when you watch a Voyageurs Cup you can count on upsets, games fought furiously for ninety minutes or more, edge-of-your-seat moments, a heap of schadenfreude past the top of Mount Royal, and just enough controversy to keep things lively. The tournament is too short, but as a consequence each game seems absurdly pregnant with meaning. The format is a little goofy, and will get goofier in 2015 when the champion will qualify for the next season’s CONCACAF Champions League, but, well, that’s Canadian soccer for ya. The soccer is fantastic fun. I bet the last game of last year’s tournament would have been the most thrilling game of the season if I hadn’t been missed it because of the blood pouring from my eyes.

As I said, this doesn’t seem like the most thrilling technical matchup on paper. FC Edmonton has some big forwards in Frank Jonke and Tomi Ameobi. If Ottawa does run the Trafford – Beckie centre back combination one presumes Edmonton will try to exploit them physically. Colin Miller has an unquenchable affinity for the long ball, a slightly dicey midfield passing-wise, and two forwards with the height advantage over Trafford and Beckie. (Jonke will also have the weight advantage, but he’ll have that over any centre back in the NASL and most grizzly bears.) Add a road game on an unfamiliar and rudimentary surface and the siren song of route one soccer could be too strong to resist, leaving Daryl Fordyce as “the guy who can run with the ball” and havin him to do the playmaking while hoping Ritchie Jones and Neil Hlavaty straighten their sights. Unless the Ottawa midfield and defense utterly collapse on themselves, of course. Which they might. There’s been an awful lot of Tony Donatelli in that middle four so far…

Meanwhile, at the back, Edmonton has… well, you know how a defensive line that might not be the flashiest but makes few mistakes is called a “no-nonsense lot”? The Eddies are the opposite of that. They’re a nonsense lot. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, oh no, left back Lance Laing could play for anybody in this league and half the MLS, as could Ottawan and right back Eddie Edward (though both have battled injury). Albert Watson was NASL Best XI last year and earned it. But Laing is a feast-or-famine player who is either jockeying the opposition marvelously into the corner, going on diabolical runs with his dangerous left foot, or giving the ball up so cheaply the opposition wishes pennies were still circulating. One of Watson’s centre back partners, Mallan Roberts, is young and has much to learn (and is hurt); the other, Kareem Moses, can handle the ball but makes mistakes like a poor man’s Jordan Harvey (yes, I know what I just said). Last year it worked, with a lot of help from Carlyle Mitchell, a bit of help from Wes Knight, Laing at his best, and Neil Hlavaty in defensive midfield. Early on this year it’s more-or-less held on with Mitchell in Vancouver, Knight in exile, Laing fighting injury, and Hlavaty on the right wing.

On the other hand, with Ottawa’s Tommy Heinemann injured, the Fury attack relies on the undersized and inexperienced Oliver Minatel, the less undersized and less inexperienced but still not-going-to-write-home-about-him Vini Dantas, Carl Haworth, who tore USL PDL to bloody ribbons but has proven nothing against professionals, and Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, who was a pretty good prospect back in the mid-2000s but hasn’t scored against anybody you’ve heard of since Martin Nash was a going concern. On the other other hand, Richie Ryan, Phil Davies, quality journeyman Nicki Paterson, and this mystery Ghanaian Hamza Elias have just enough going on in attack that they gave the decent Minnesota United back four a scare. (I know he got a nice assist but I’m still not buying Tony Donatelli for a minute. He’s too… Tony Donatelli.)

So you see my interest, even if I don’t expect a technical masterclass. My prediction, sitting here with limited knowledge on either team (it’s so so early, still, and both Edmonton and Ottawa could head off in any direction), is that there’s a draw in Ottawa and the Eddies win it next week at Clarke Stadium. Edmonton has been made favourites, largely on the basis of superior experience, but the Fury have several players who know this level and a whack of names (Donatelli, Davies, Mayard, Trafford, Jarun, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Kenny Caceros, Heinemann, head coach dos Santos, and assistant coach Martin Nash) who’ve played in the Canadian Championship itself. The experience advantage, if it even exists, is not likely to be decisive. I just feel Edmonton has a bit more quality and a lot more strength.

But we’ll see. You never know with the Voyageurs Cup, not until the last whistle of the last minute of the last game. God, what a tournament.

(notes and comments…)

Our lord swears fealty to the Kings

By Roke · June 2nd, 2013 · No comments


Mourning Vancouver, Mourning Canada

By Benjamin Massey · May 31st, 2013 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

If I don’t say something about the soccer games earlier this week I know I’ll regret it down the line. So I’m forcing myself to, against the desires in my gut. I’m still not quite over it. That’s a pretty rough week, soccer-wise.

First, the Voyageurs Cup loss on Wednesday. Comprehensive analysis of the game is besides the point. If, by chance, you need such analysis, I suggest Michael McColl, whose staccato paragraphs sometimes seem to convey a lot of emotion for a pretty formula match review[1]. My thoughts, in brief, are that the Whitecaps played well enough to win, had no passengers on the pitch even if they had a few who weren’t quite at the top of their game, and that Martin Rennie managed it well (the much-maligned Jordan Harvey substitution was good theory and “the absence of a second forward” was hardly the reason Montreal drew a corner kick with Vancouver’s midfield way up the pitch, then scored). Vancouver had almost twice as many shots directed as Montreal, twice as many shots on target, they hit the woodwork twice… I mean, what else do you want? It’s Martin Rennie’s fault that Johnny Leveron’s wide-open header off a corner hit the crossbar but Hassoun Camara’s went in? Fuck off. Vancouver played extremely well and the soccer gods shit all over us.

Haven’t we lost this tournament in as many ways as possible? I mean, we had the Feisty but Inferior Team (2008), the Screwjob (2009), the Desultory Team That Was Never Good Enough (2010), the Weather Screwjob (2011), the Underachievers (2012), and now the Shit Out of Luck Gang (2013). Just heartbreak on top of heartbreak; sometimes because we weren’t good enough, sometimes because we were but the gods conspired against us, and now, when we did absolutely everything but get that final goal, hitting our breakaways off Evan Bush, hammering the post again and again, having our ultra-late last-minute sure things go so close and into the side netting that the person I was standing next to actually turned to me, eyes wide, and asked “Did that go in?!”

What should I say here? It’s been two days and my reaction still essentially amounts to fuck. It’s not like I can’t go about my life, I haven’t been laying at home in bed with my pillow over my head or anything, but every time I try to turn my brain back to soccer there’s this wrenching sensation in my head like I’m being lobotomized by a jackhammer. I was out for lunch with my co-workers this afternoon and the Voyageurs Cup came up; it was like a shell had hit next to me and I was wiping my buddy’s brains off my face. I think I have the soccer version of PTSD.

Jesus. How did we not win? How did that Harvey shot not go in? Why was nobody on the near post? How could a team which played so well, and so earned a trophy it had never won and desperately needed against a moral rival, wind up losing on away goals? As long as I live I will never understand. Ours is a primally unfair world. Most people die terrified and alone, screaming in the dark. That game was a miniature of why the universe is so horrifying and unjust.

I don’t blame the players. As a fan I sometimes wonder, do the players care about a competition like this as much as I do? But the Whitecaps gave a glorious effort in a losing cause. Nobody slacked off. There were no perfect games and both of Montreal’s goals capitalized on Vancouver mistakes. But a perfect game of soccer has not yet been played, and in most game those errors pass without exploitation. The difference is that Montreal capitalized, their shots went in, and Vancouver missed, our shots hit the woodwork. Vancouver outplayed the Impact, made fewer errors (against an excellent team playing its blood out), and it just didn’t happen. It didn’t fucking happen.

I don’t mean to take much away from Montreal. They were inferior, they were lucky, but they were still very good. Jeb Brovsky and Alessandro Nesta fighting back from injury and making major contributions was every bit as impressive as Kenny Miller and Daigo Kobayashi doing the same for Vancouver. No doubt their fans are rightly overjoyed. But look at the shots again. Look at the passes. Look at the chances Vancouver just couldn’t put away. I will go to my grave convinced the Whitecaps were the better team over the two legs everywhere but where it counted.

That really was the worst game I have ever seen. Those who went to watch Canada lose 8-1 in Honduras will suggest that one but at least it was over quickly. A shot to the back of the head, then Honduras is up 4-0 and you’re ordering the highest-alcohol beer you can find. “Losing a Cup final at home to a mortal rival on away goals”… I don’t know. Penalties might have been worse. That’s it.

As for the Canada game in Costa Rica, what stood out was how little our bubble guys showed. The players who are or should be automatic (Hainault, Edwini-Bonsu, Borjan, okay that might be it) showed well enough. The players on the bubble did absolutely nothing to convince me they deserve another look. Naturally, every single bubble player made Canada’s 35-man preliminary Gold Cup roster[2], because Tony Fonseca has an insane and indefensible bias against NASL players (oh, yeah, Stefan Cebara, Daniel Haber, two U-20s who have never played a professional game, and one Scottish U-20 who has never played above the Scottish Third Division are all well ahead of Shaun Saiko on the depth chart). Paul Hamilton isn’t named, of course; if the Carolina Railhawks ever played a team like Los Angeles they’d get killed. Simon Thomas, who will be backing up for FC Edmonton on Saturday, is named. John Smits, who will be starting ahead of Simon Thomas for FC Edmonton on Saturday[3], is not. It’s actually hilarious (and I like Simon a lot). No bias against the NASL here! No sir! Kyle Porter materialized out of thin air rather than spending three years as a B or B+ player in the USSF D2 and NASL, right?

While the Canadian game was frustrating, it’s a different sort of frustration from Vancouver. The Voyageurs Cup was an apocalypse, our own little Hiroshima. The continued incompetence of the Canadian men’s national team is just, well, the continued incompetence of the Canadian men’s national team. There was no risk of them making any noise at the Gold Cup, we all knew it, and it was nice to see my prejudices confirmed on so many levels. It was equally nice to see Canada back playing on the prairies, a gesture so important it canceled out any result.

Soccer is the worst sport in the world.

(notes and comments…)

Play Kenny Miller

By Benjamin Massey · May 28th, 2013 · 1 comment

I am typing this from my phone so please forgive the everything.

Apparently Kenny Miller is close to coming back! He’s missed the past I-can’t-look-it-up (did I mention I’m typing this from my phone?) with a stubborn hamstring injury but has been taking full training recently. A scare with him wearing an ice pack on his knee late last week doesn’t appear to bode ill; everybody I’d expect to know is saying he should be available for selection on Wednesday.

The Internet physiotherapists are saying that the Whitecaps should play it safe with Miller. His hamstring problem has already lasted longer than usual and he’s a key player, 33 years old, not one with whom we should take chances. Normally I would agree, in my own capacity as an Internet physiotherapist. Better safe than sorry, if only psychologically. There are fans convinced that the Whitecaps rushed Jay DeMerit back and cost him 99.9% of the 2013 season and/or that the Whitecaps rushed Miller back and made his hamstring worse. If Miller started Wednesday and the worst happened, even if just by coincidence, the knives would be out.

As I say, normally, I’d be all for easing Miller in. Normally. This week is not normal.

Wednesday is a Cup final, as close to must-win as you can get without actually being must-win. The Whitecaps could theoretically draw Montreal 0-0 and nick ’em on penalties, but realistically we’re going to need a goal, and up against a competent offensive team we’re probably going to need more than one. When he played earlier this year Miller was maybe Vancouver’s most valuable player, linking the midfield up with the attack in a manner we haven’t enjoyed since Martin Nash retired. The Whitecaps attack is mediocre, but adding Miller makes it almost fine.

If Miller can contribute to the game Wednesday then he must, regardless of the consequences. Winning the Voyageurs Cup is well worth sacrificing Miller for a few more weeks. It’s silverware, which is the entire reason we’re here. It’s a trophy, the Voyageurs Cup, which we have never won in twelve attempts while finishing runners-up six times. It’s our ticket to the CONCACAF Champions League. As I’ve been at pains to explain, the influx of allocation money would also allow us to improve the team; maybe not to the point of bringing in a new designated player but still meaningfully.

There are times where you’re cautious and conserve your strength, and there are times where you ride the horse to death. This is one of the latter times. If Miller is physically able to start he should do so and play until either he is unable to contribute or the game is won. The Whitecaps are not likely to have a bigger game than this all season. If Miller contributes 60 minutes to a win but it costs him the rest of the season, the Whitecaps come out ahead.

Rambling Analysis Before the Voyageurs Cup Final

By Benjamin Massey · May 27th, 2013 · 2 comments

Johany Jutras/Canadian Soccer Association

Johany Jutras/Canadian Soccer Association

Tomorrow I am going to spend pretty much all day on the go so I won’t have time to genuflect on Wednesday’s Voyageurs Cup final against the Montreal Impact. I therefore do so now.

Not often discussed in Vancouver is what a justification the Montreal – Philadelphia game was for Martin Rennie’s tactics. The Impact hammered the Union, going up a leisurely 3-1 in the first half and plinking home a couple more goals while Philadelphia went all-out trying to get back into it, winning 5-3 in an utterly one-sided affair.

It made Rennie look brilliant. The Union and the Whitecaps are both basically respectable teams; I think Vancouver just has the legs on Philadelphia but it’s hardly clear. Philadelphia ran with Montreal at Stade Saputo and got smoked. Vancouver sat back, tried to absorb pressure, and succeeded. Not just in terms of the scoreline but in shots as well.

When the Whitecaps limited Montreal to two shots on target last Wednesday, that was the fewest shots the Impact managed at home since June 27, 2012 against Toronto FC. It wasn’t just that Montreal was shooting inaccurately, though that helped: their ten shots directed was the fewest at home since September 22 since March 16 (also Toronto; what is it with Impact shooters and Canadian teams?) and one of only four such games in their MLS history (including Voyageurs Cup). It was a first-class defensive performance in Montreal, one which was achieved entirely without Lee Young-pyo or Jun Marques Davidson, resting them and others up for a Portland game that weekend they should have won.

Teams which try to slug it out with the Impact at Stade Saputo come to bad ends. Real Salt Lake played a good game and got unlucky; the rest were meh at best going back to late 2012. Had the Whitecaps opened the offense and gone for the vital away goal the odds were against them (Montreal’s home record in games with 9 or more combined SoG since June 2012: 7W-1D-2L, losses both flukes, wins over New York, San Jose, Toronto, New York again, Chicago, fluke over Salt Lake, and Philadelphia). Obviously a 1-1 draw would have been good, a fluke victory fantastic, but more likely the Whitecaps would have lost 1-0 or 2-1 and come home in trouble. If you can choose between a 30% chance of a good result and a probability of a very-nearly-as-good result, I’d go for the latter. So did Martin Rennie.

(Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. This brings me about to a minor nit-pick. In the Canadian Championship the away goals rule still applies in extra time. So let’s say Vancouver and Montreal draw 0-0 after 90 minutes Wednesday. They go to extra time, each team scores once, Montreal wins 1-1 aet. This seems stupid to me, as it gives an advantage to the team playing away in the second leg. Montreal may get thirty “extra” minutes for their goals to be worth more Wednesday than Vancouver could at Stade Saputo. It’s unbalanced. We had the same problem a couple of years ago when Ali Gerba nearly won it for Montreal by tying it. This advantage is needless and easily dispensed with by stating that the away goals rule does not apply in extra time. Like the Rain Game, it seems like a minor issue until it decides a championship.)

On Twitter this morning I was musing about the Montreal Impact’s percentages. Now that Troy Perkins got ventilated by Philadelphia on the weekend there’s nothing really outrageous. However, all their percentages are just a hair above last year’s mean. For example, they have 42.75% of their shots directed landing on target (2012 MLS average 34.44%), 33.90% of their shots on target becoming goals (2012 MLS 29.76%), and a save percentage of 73.08% (2012 MLS 70.24%). It’s not a lot and some is doubtless skill (hello Marco di Vaio). But some of that is luck, and while none of the numbers are individually outrageous it’s all a few goals here and there making the Impact look just a little bit better than they are.

I think this may show up most on the road. So far the Impact are a damned good road team in 2013: a win at Portland and a commendable draw at San Jose gives them two Cup-winning road results against west coast teams who are better than the Whitecaps. But in Portland the Impact got 66.67% of their shots directed on target (fuck off) and in San Jose they managed 83.33% (fuck off!!!). Neither Portland nor San Jose obviously undercount shots directed by teams visiting their stadiums: those numbers are probably approximately legit, and indicate that for whatever reason in those big wins Montreal was shooting more accurately than it is possible to maintain. Again, Montreal is a good team, they play well away, they will be a stiff test for Vancouver, they just don’t play as well as their impressive record would suggest.

Vancouver’s big advantage will be in fatigue. As has abundantly been discussed, the Impact played at home on Saturday whereas the Whitecaps had an off week. The Impact are traveling from Montreal to Vancouver; there are plenty of direct commercial flights, annoyingly, but that’s still three time zones worth of jet lag. The Whitecaps will, of course, have been home and comfortable for almost two weeks by game time. This is not a decisive advantage (again, the Impact did well in one test of travel-and-short-rest this year) but it’s another factor in the Whitecaps’ favour.

On Saturday the Impact ran their best horses into the ground. Bernier, Nesta, Felipe, and Ferrari all did the 90 and are all key players who are aging, fresh off injury, perpetually faintly unfit, or all three. Di Vaio went 85 minutes. Brovsky did 77 minutes with his face smashed in like a chocolate orange. That’s a tough turnaround for these players both physically and psychologically. Imagine Nesta, 37 years old, having spent most of his career on Serie A’s hallowed turfs, just recovered from a groin injury, and facing both the physical barrier of big minutes twice in a week and the psychological problem with artificial turf. I almost expect him not to play.

Those better versed in soccer psychology than I may be able to predict whether we’ll see the Whitecaps go other the way: overprepare, get wind-up because of the long period to look at one massive challenge, particularly straight off a hardly-relaxing Portland draw. I’m sure if the Whitecaps do lose, somebody will make this point after the fact. Soccer psychologists are a lot like message board doctors.

My prediction in last Wednesday’s Two Fat Bastards was Vancouver 2, Montreal 1. I’ve seen nothing since that makes me change my mind. The Whitecaps should have a slight advantage. They’re better-rested. They’re at home. Montreal and Vancouver have identical SoG/90 differentials so far this year of +0.636 and their differentials have been in the same range for the past month. They’ve both played six home games and five on the road. In skill terms they are extraordinarily evenly matched, to a degree that makes me want to lie down with a gin and tonic and a cold towel on my forehead. So home field and long rest should prove decisive for Vancouver, unless of course they don’t. And there are two Quebec linesmen for Wednesday (Belleau and Gamache)[1]; what will that mean? Probably nothing, unless of course it does. No result, other than a blowout, would be an upset worthy of the name. Montreal winning by a couple, Vancouver winning by a couple, a close game, away goals, penalties… if you’re betting on this game you are a moron.

This is shaping up to be a hell of a thing.

(notes and comments…)